"Dear Level Accelerated Girls Parents,
Congratulations your daughter has been selected and identified as a talented gymnast. You are cordially invited to move up to the Accelerated Gymnastic Team....
"Please be advised that team children are only entitled to a two week vacation per year.
"Injury policy: 2 weeks or less: Injuries that require two week break or less will not receive any price credit. For these minor injuries, speak to your coach about strength/flexibility/workout program that is custom designed to work around these minor injuries. 3 weeks or greater: tuition will depend on the extent of the injury."
The above is excerpted from a letter I received in the mail from Maia's gym. In case you can't tell, she goes to a "real gym" where they actually have teams that compete. Although it really shouldn't have, this brief letter through me into a state of confusion about what I truly want for my children...and what I should want.
Aside from vicariously living out my own unfulfilled gymnastic ambitions, are there any real reasons why I would subject my daughter to an accelerated gymnastics program, where at age five, she has to practice twice a week and only gets a two-week vacation? Or where at age seven she has to practice three times a week and starts competing on the weekend? And how could we possibly afford to pay double or triple or quadruple what we pay now, given that we consider Maia's gymnastics to be a luxury (or at least, an unnecessary expense)?
Of course, the first answer is that I want her to be successful at something she enjoys. With persistent training throughout the next few years, she could no doubt be improve her skill. Part of me feels bad about limiting her by not letting her do accelerated gymnastics. If she could be the next Shawn Johnson, who am I to stand in the way? But as Jeff noted, we specifically DON'T want her to be an Olympic gymnast. We don't want her subjected to that pressure, mentally or physically.
When I received this letter, I realized that I had not given much thought to my children's future in terms of activities. Or, I should say that I had not decided upon a plan. Because actually, I have given children's activities some thought, ever since I read a compelling article about the rise in athletic injuries among children, who spend far more time training in one specific sport year-round than before, and pay this price physically, not just in their childhood, but often in terms of permanent injuries. Conversation with "soccer moms" or, more accurately "soccer-chorus-baseball-theater-basketball-synchronized swimming-gymnastics-band moms" has confirmed my feeling that young children spend a little too much time in organized activities, as opposed just to playing with friends.
What's a mom to do? Well, I sought the advice of a well-established mother, with nine children ranging in age from 22 to in utero. A Princeton grad, married to another Princeton grad, and the oldest two kids now students at Notre Dame. Here are some of her tips for controling the activites with a large family:
1. Don't have your kids do any "gym" sports, like martial arts or gymnastics. They take too much time and money. If your child gets injured (or in their case, they had a daughter who became anorexic due to the pressure of her sports activity), it's all over.
2. Don't put your kids in anything that you personally don't like (unless they really insist). Her example was t-ball/baseball. She found games to be absolutely boring, especially because her kids sometimes had little or no action in the games.
3. Don't do travel sports. Kids can have fun and learn discipline and skill by playing local soccer games. No need to drive two hours away to compete.
4. One child-one sport per season. No overscheduling. She said she had a son in lacrosse and soccer at the same time, and neither coach was forgiving of the inevitable missed practices.
5. One child-one musical instrument. After experimenting with suzuki violin lessons, they decided just to stick with school band lessons. Practicing the instruments is a must for continuing because otherwise their failure is bad for their self-esteem.
6. Swimming is the best family sport. City swim leagues are the only sport where the age range is from 6-18. Have your kids swim, and they all practice at the same time and compete in the same meet. It makes it so easy.
7. Trial and error. You can just tell when something is not working out, and you have to be willing to let it go and learn from your mistakes. Don't get too attached to the kids' activities.
8. Don't let it stress the kids. Kids are kids. They shouldn't have extreme pressure in regard to competition (and those parent-coaches who say they don't care about winning are lying). When one of their younger sons was told in 7th grade that he needed to cut weight for a wrestling meet that was right after Christmas, they had him cut wrestling instead. Kids need to eat and grow and learn and be happy. Beware of athletic pressure on the kids. While their oldest two had eleven varsity letters each in high school, their third, who was even more a natural athlete, just couldn't handle the stress.
9. Big rocks in first. She said it sounds trite, but that's how it is. Mass and family Rosary on Sunday are top priorities. But after that, if there's a swim practice or swim meet, that's ok. They don't have a "not on Sunday" rule for activities. For them, academics always come first. Sometimes their kids have to miss a practice because they have a school project.
So, as you may have guessed our "talented gymnast" is not going to do accelerated gymnastics. We still don't have a "plan," but I think Maia's going to be a great swimmer, just like her mom, and all of her younger siblings.