Celia Huddart, winning a silver medal for Snatch at USA Weightlifting Youth Nationals.
My husband and I own a gym. Our daughter, Celia, has been hanging out there for years. Sometimes she worked out, sometimes she didn’t. But she was around it, watching all sorts of people work hard, in all sorts of ways. We never pushed it one way or another. If anything, I tried to steer her away from taking fitness too seriously, what with the constant messaging to teenage girls that they should be slim and sexy and…. We just let her hang out there. When she felt like giving it a shot, we simply let her.
Last weekend, she won a Silver Medal at the USA Weightlifting Youth Nationals. I was the last person who expected that, and I sure as hell didn’t push for it.
For years now, parents have been asking me how to get their kids into sports. How to push them towards sports. How to help them be successful at sports.
And I always tell them the same thing: you don’t.
Their bodies – and yours – are not here to score points, win games, meet someone else’s idea of sexy or pay for college. That’s not the point.
Their bodies – and yours – are here to help them live their lives in a way that is fulfilling and joyful. And they – like you – are the only people who can define that for themselves.
Your job is to teach them how to understand their bodies. Your job is to help them understand the relationship between fitness and health. The relationship between fitness and happiness. The relationship between fitness and freedom.
And really, you need to help them understand that health and fitness are their own reward – regardless of what you look like, whether or not you win, and no matter what anyone else thinks of it.
All of which will help them appreciate their bodies more – no small feat in a society that depends on you hating your body enough to buy products.
Yes, some kids have an obvious gift, help them use it. Some kids will grow up and get things like college scholarships, but not many – and there are better ways to save and pay for college. Some kids, but precious few, will have professional sports careers. So if you are setting your kids up to think that any of that is the point of fitness, you are setting them up to believe that they are failures. And that how they feel isn’t the point.
Don’t be that parent.
Make Fitness a Lifestyle, Not a Goal
When they’re young, get active as a family. It doesn’t have to be organized sports, but “do” things every day. Walking, hiking, biking, swimming, dancing, yoga, roller-blading, skateboarding, climbing, parkour, paddling; whatever it is, do stuff. 30 minutes a day, no matter what. And make it FUN.
But, you say, “I’m not active now?” Time to start.
If they’re tiny, you can just start, and they’ll never know that it doesn’t come naturally to you. Just do it (as they say) for them, and you will reap the rewards as well.
If they’re older, it’s okay to let them see you struggle to start. Normalize the fact that activity doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But that you’re going to do it anyway, because your health matters.
Avoid “goal” language that is attached to physical appearance or external approval. Make it about your bodies being strong, make it about going out and playing, having fun.
Create habits for a healthy future. And get bonus quality time together as a family.
Make It About What Makes Them Happy
Don’t worry about the “right” sport or the “cool” sport. Your girl wants to lift weights? Your boy wants to dance? Great, if it makes them happy, let them do it. Your kid wants to climb? Go to circus school? Yoga?
Try as many things as it takes until you find something that sticks. Celia, the kid who just took silver at Nationals, hated everything. She’d ask to sign up for T-Ball, and then hate it. So we didn’t do it again. We did, however, make clear that if she signed up for a team, she had to see it through for that season and she had to try her hardest because she had a responsibility to the team. If she still hated it when it was over, we’d try something else.
She liked soccer marginally better. But not really. Circus? That was funny.
She wound up doing ballet for years, because she hated everything else, and doing NOTHING was not an option. It was the thing she hated least, although she really wasn’t any good at it at first.
When she said she wanted to quit ballet, we asked her to pick something else. She picked rowing, and committed to it until she was injured. It was after that injury that she discovered weightlifting….. and we could tell, just watching her, that this was her thing.
But if you had asked us when she was 10, we would have told you that she hates sports. Because she did. That said, we told her she had to do something, and let her choose what it would be.
Let Them Struggle; And Lose
Doing the hike that is hard is ultimately more rewarding than the walk that is easy. Not only do you get better views, but the force it takes to get it done is what builds strength and fitness. Too often, people give up on things because they’re hard, and fitness – like life – is often hard. But it’s also a nice safe way to learn to tackle challenges and enjoy rewards.
Activities that involve developing specialized skills have extra metaphorical “umph” to them because it’s possible to track progress and learn from failure. Conquering something that is hard and daunting exercises the StickToIt Muscle. Which is not a real muscle. But it’s what you need for life’s challenges, and learning to stick to something, to accomplish it, is it’s own reward.
Now, that does not make everyone a “winner,” so let’s ditch that language once and for all. Amongst other things, this ridiculous trend reinforces the idea that “winning” is what matters, so please don’t play that game. But also, in life, we often don’t get what we want. The person we have a crush on has a crush on someone else. The job we want went to someone else. Use sports and fitness as a way to teach your kids to pivot and persevere. Didn’t get what you wanted this time? Oh well, that’s the way it goes. What did you learn and what are you going to do next? That life skill is worth more than any participatory trophy.
If your kid likes to compete, like mine, let them. But still focus on the process and the many rewards outside of just “winning.” My kid loves to compete, I could never stop her. If your kid, like me, hates to compete, don’t make them. Help them find a path to fitness in which winning and losing isn’t even a thing. (I am, of course, biased, but I think CrossFit is great for this. So is dance, yoga, circus, skateboarding…..)
I’ve been a mother for a long time now. We’ve tried all the leagues, all the sports. And there is nothing harder to witness than those kids whose parents are pushing them to be the best at multiple sports, simultaneously. (And then whisking them off to private tutoring, accelerated academics and…..)
Think about it this way: How is the myth of “having it all” working for you? For most adults, it’s leaving us stressed out and miserable. Don’t start your kids on that path.
I am a huge advocate of picking one sport per season in addition to school, and one “other” hobby that isn’t sports. For Celia, that sport is lifting. Could she have also qualified to go to the CrossFit Games? Almost certainly. Did she initially want to? Yes. But for the sake of her body and her sanity, we asked her to pick one. It was a no-brainer for her, she chose lifting. And hanging out with her friends. And watching who-knows-what on Netflix when she should probably be sleeping.
Pushing kids to be the best at anything, much less all the things, is a sure fire way to create stressed out adults who seek external validation in ways that are not innately fulfilling. Teach them to focus on what brings them the most joy, what feels the most innately rewarding, and what, ultimately makes them the strongest both physically and emotionally.
Use sports and fitness as a way to teach kids to prioritize some things, and let other things go.
Look, there is so much research showing irrefutable links between exercise and both physical and emotional health. It really isn’t even up for debate any more. No matter what you look like, or your exercise looks like, you have to be active. Sweat. Get your heart beat up. Make your muscles sore. Exercise matters, a lot.
So here’s your cheat sheet on how to talk to your kids and how to make it stick:
* We do this because we value our health. * We do it every day, in one way or another. There are lots of ways. * We don’t do it just to win or to impress other people. * The process is as important as the result. * It’s not about what you look like. Strong, healthy people come in lots of shapes and sizes. * Sometimes we do it even when we don’t want to, but it’s always worth it. * We are responsible for our own health and happiness.
And, above all, HAVE FUN. That’s the point of these bodies. They are the vehicles that allow us to do the things that we enjoy.
That’s how you win the game of life.