Child 2 does gymnastics on a Saturday morning. I like her to do it as it salves my conscience about her comparative lack of physical exercise the rest of he week. I read once that the recommended amount of hours of exercise for a four year old is three. Hours. A DAY. Since she gets nothing like this (Child 1 appears to spend his break and lunch tearing round the playground having battles – I find it best not to enquire too deeply into these things: you always hear something alarming such as ‘we were seeing who was the best at knocking people over’ – Child 2, on the other hand, spends break and lunch re-enacting Frozen) I like to feel that on a Saturday morning she at least gets the first hour of exercise for that day.
Child 2 is quite good at gymnastics. She runs, jumps, vaults, swings, and forward rolls with relative ease. She’s always been a physical child; when she walked at nine months I was inordinately proud and certain this signified future genius. (Word of warning to all you other mothers of early walkers; it doesn’t. They all walk eventually.) The first time I saw her do ‘proper’ gymnastics – as opposed to the three year old class where they climb on the monkey bars, find hidden things in the pit and do the odd forward roll – I started planning her future Olympic career. (I’ll worry about the future eating disorders and the fact that she’s already about a foot taller than her friends at a later date.)
It transpires that in the bigger class they give a certificate every week to ‘gymnast of the week.’ It’s like ‘star of the week’ at primary school, only not as soul destroying because there’s eight kids instead of thirty to share it around, but worse because all the parents are watching it happen. (I guarantee that if parents were allowed to watch the allocation of ‘star of the week’ there would be actual fights) As ten o’clock draws near at gymnastics, you can feel the tension rising in the gallery. Parents crane to be that little bit closer to the window, anxious rows of eyes watching the poor coaches as they make their decision. Once the decision is made, the certificate handed to each little gymnast of the week, every parent in the room affects nonchalance. Oh no, we don’t care that the worst behaved gymnast in the group got it, or the one that can’t vault, or the one who is just clearly not a scratch on our daughter. No, no, this gymnast of the week thing is just a bit of fun; it encourages them. Then we shuffle downstairs, avoiding the smug, triumphant smiles of the gymnast of the week’s parents, and watch them take a photo all ready to post on Facebook.
For the first couple of weeks, I genuinely didn’t mind that Child 2 wasn’t gymnast of the week. Everyone gets their turn, I thought. Hers will come. Anyway, she cried for at least the first half hour of each of the first three weeks, so my main focus was on not feeling like a bloody awful cruel mother by still making her go. (I had paid in advance; I’m not miserly but £130 seemed to be a lot to throw away when she had loved it so much before) But she grew to love it and the weeks crept by, and still no certificate, and to my horror, I found myself becoming one of Those Parents. One who actually cared about a piece of paper that rested on the somewhat arbitrary decision of a sixteen year old coach. (They’re very good, those coaches,
although they all look about twelve) I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see how good she was (presumably because they weren’t watching through a parent’s eyes) and ranted quietly to myself about the poor innocent children who took the certificate home.
It took the week where she actually was gymnast of the week to make me realise how ridiculous this was. What was I thinking? She’s four. She does gymnastics because she likes it and I believe in the discipline and strength of it. She doesn’t do it to be gymnast of the week. She wouldn’t even consider whether she was better or worse than the others without it. And allocating a gymnast of the week isn’t the way to encourage them to be better at it and enjoy it; they should derive their satisfaction from the building of their skills. We took her certificate home and put it on the fridge, and she has never looked at it again. A valuable lesson, that: it’s quite clear the parents care more than the children, and it’s more than a little distasteful to think I actually cared about how good a four year old is at gymnastics.
I try now to not let it matter. External validations should be unimportant, and, next to how I love my children, they are. That love dwarfs everything. Of course that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ridiculously proud when she moved to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow at school – but this time my pride was in that she had got there simply by being such a good girl every day – not a meaningless certificate shared out each week.