Like many, I was obsessed with horses as a child. I nagged for horse-riding lessons, was thrilled when Santa brought me my own riding hat and boots, and spent weekends helping out at the stables.
When my own daughter said she’d like to learn to ride, I was thrilled. I wanted her to have the same experience I did. I began to research local classes and planned a shopping trip for jodhpurs. I even looked up the dates of nearby gymkhanas. Then I realised I was probably going a bit over the top. The last thing I wanted to do was kill off her enthusiasm with my own.
Just as there are rules within a sport, there are guidelines we parents should follow when it comes to teaching kids a new activity. And part of that is not pushing them too hard, too quickly.
Here’s how to foster lifetime love, rather than short-term infatuation.
I know someone who started tennis lessons at a young age and showed real aptitude. Unfortunately, his parents got a bit carried away. They talked with conviction about him playing at Wimbledon and winning Grand Slam titles. He felt pressured – to the point where he decided to give up. He wanted to enjoy the sport, not feel he had to excel at it.
There’s nothing wrong with having goals, but make sure it’s your kid who sets them. If he or she is learning to swim, let them focus on managing a few strokes to start with. Then a width of the pool. Then a length. Break everything down into smaller, manageable chunks so they can build up confidence in their ability. You’ll know soon enough if you’ve got the next Michael Phelps on your hands.
2Invest in proper gear (but don’t go crazy)
Depending on the sport, some equipment will be essential. Football boots and shin pads. A cycling helmet. A hockey stick. You don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune, but you do want good gear that will do the job. (Dealing with kids who want specific brands or the exact same kit as their hero is another matter.)
What you don’t need to do is rush out and buy the absolute latest design or model of everything. Early on, you don’t know if your child will stick at a new activity so it doesn’t make sense to splash out. It might even be possible to borrow or hire equipment to start with, if budget is an issue.
3Keep it fun
Don’t push your kids beyond their comfort zone, especially in the early days. A challenge is fine; if you’re mountain biking and spot a new track, go for it – but make it an adventure, not a trial. If it’s too difficult, too frightening, too far – that’s what they’ll remember. Make sure they have the skills and understanding to deal with what you’re suggesting – small steps, as we said earlier.
If they’re keen on something you’ve never tried, why not take up a new sport or activity as a family? And don’t be surprised if they learn more quickly than you do! I’d always fancied sea kayaking, but even though I’m a competent swimmer, there was something terrifying about the thought of striking out across the open ocean. My son thought this was hilarious. He was paddling around with confidence far more quickly than I was.
5Don’t forget to take a break
If your kids are younger, remember they’ll get tired before you do. We’ve always enjoyed hiking, and I loved the exhilaration of pushing just that bit further to reach the summit of a hill before taking a break. But the kids simply couldn’t manage it. I used to worry that once we stopped, we’d never get going again. We did, of course – we just had to allow extra time for enough rest breaks. The same goes for cycling, running, skating and all manner of other activities.
6Be honest with them
If your child is tired and wants to know how much further, don’t lie. Telling them ‘just around the corner’ when it’s another 2km will make it worse when they realise the truth. Instead, explain how you’re going to manage the rest of the journey together.
False praise doesn’t work, either. Kids know when you’re spinning them a story. If your child hasn’t played well in a football game, don’t say they were the best on the field. Instead, talk about what went wrong and discuss what might help next time.
7There’s nothing wrong with outside help
Kids are more open to instruction and less likely to complain when being taught by someone who isn’t a parent. My husband was a junior football coach for several years. Of course, to our son, he was just ‘Dad’ – not someone with teacher-level authority. Trying to maintain the balance was difficult, and I think they were both glad when my son could move up to the next age group. Enjoying a sport or activity together is fine, but being your kid’s teacher isn’t always the best idea.