Thursday, September 25, 2014

Apparently my son will not be a world-beating gymnast

When I was about nine, I started learning the recorder. It was a school thing. We all bought our own instruments and then were herded into a basement room inexplicably called "The Parish Room" and taught the recorder for half an hour each week in a mass group of 30 by some long-suffering teacher. I don't know how everyone else got on, but it worked for me.

Two years later, on starting secondary school, we were invited to take up 'grown up' instruments. I was offered clarinet or flute lessons. I chose clarinet because everybody else wanted flute. My parents found a local rent-to-buy scheme for my instrument and off we went. 18 months later, I took grade 3. Grades 4 and 5 came in the next couple of years after that and then, realising that I wanted to do music at university and needed grade 8, I skipped 6 and 7 and got my 8 in time to apply.

At some point I discovered that in order to study clarinet at university, I also needed to be at least grade 6 on the piano. I was going on 15 when I started piano lessons, but managed to get through grades 4, 5 and 6 in time to make the application.

I'm not a musical genius. I promise I'm not. Arriving at university and being surrounded by some serious talent quickly disabused me of any such idea. I had some aptitude, yes, and was keen to play and learn and did a lot in my own time just for pleasure, but I'm no Vanessa Mae, I can assure you.

My point is that I didn't really start until I was half-way through the juniors. And I started on recorder, a cheap and easily accessible instrument. Painful though it might have been to my parents' ears, it really was a great introduction. And I went on to make a career out of teaching music.

I didn't start swimming lessons until I was in the juniors either, and yet I can swim pretty well. My sister didn't start gymnastics until she was eleven - practically geriatric in gymnastics terms - and yet she went on to compete for her country and win national and international gold medals.

All this had changed by the time I started teaching. At some point the idea became fashionable that the earlier we start everything, the better. So they started giving seven-year-olds massive clarinets to play. I'd see them struggling to hold the, for them, heavy instruments, and trying to manage their embouchure through gappy teeth. And yet, when these children arrived at the secondary school where I taught, they'd often still be working towards grade 1 or 2. Three to four years of 'A Tune A Day Clarinet'. I wondered how they'd managed to have the fortitude to keep going! The truth is that many had dropped out from sheer boredom years earlier.

When I became a parent, I promised myself that I wouldn't jump on that bandwagon. The decision to pursue music, coming as it did when I was a tween, was entirely my own, supported by my parents, not imposed on me by them when I was too young to have my own opinion. I assured myself that I'd let my son's interests guide me.

Oh, but it's not that easy! Two years ago, I was looking for some activity that would support my then foster child, NB, to develop his strength, balance and co-ordination. Gymnastics seemed ideal. I looked around for a local gymnastics club that had classes for three-year-olds. Lots of them did, but it seemed that once they turned five, many clubs only offered training for girls. Eventually we found one, half an hour away, that offered classes for boys of all ages, and I enrolled NB and OB who was just turning two at the time.



The class was a parent-supported basic skills class - really a sort of enhanced soft play - designed for toddlers from two years. NB went for seven months before he moved on to adoption and it really helped him. OB completed the academic year and I decided to go back with him after the summer in the hopes that he would eventually graduate to the next class - a more serious pre-school class with no parental involvement.

The graduation never came. Although OB had been there a year, he was still considered too young. By this time he was getting bored with the repetitive nature of the weekly group and he started playing up, refusing to join in. This behaviour was a black mark against him - I was told that only children who follow instructions and listen to the teacher were able to move up to the next class which is in the proper gym with real equipment. I explained that he was happy to listen to the teacher - it was my presence that was messing things up. He listens to the teacher fine at swimming when I am far away on the sidelines. No dice.

Eventually, after several sessions where I simply gave up with OB's total refusal to participate and brought him home early, we stopped going. Some things I will make him do even if he doesn't want to - swimming for instance - but gymnastics is not one of those things.

After all, I reasoned, if he changes his mind later and wants to try again, we can always enrol on one of the classes for older children at a later date, right? Wrong. I was told that the only way to be guaranteed a place on one of the proper classes is to 'graduate' from one of the pre-school classes. Otherwise it's a minimum two years on the waiting list.

So, that's it then. OB is three years old and, unless I'm prepared to drag him unwillingly along to gymnastics every week and somehow magically overcome his total frustration with the baby activities, his gymnastics career is basically over.

It's not that I'm desperate for him to be the next Louis Smith. Gymnastics is neither here nor there. What bothers me is that, at the age of three, his options are already closing down. I would like to think that, as he gets older and his interests develop, he could join activities that he chooses, but is that realistic? Or will we find that, at seven, eight, nine years old, the door is closed to him because he didn't 'graduate from the pre-school class'?

I read an article recently that expressed concern that childhood is being eroded because parents are so worried that their four-year-olds are falling behind. I sympathise with those parents. I really don't want to be a pushy, helicopter parent, but the odds are stacked against me!

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