GIRL GONE ACTIVE
My daughter, now almost 21 years old, was a whirling dervish when younger. There was no walking somewhere, there was only skipping or running. She wasn’t very coordinated or strong, she wasn’t involved in any organized sports, but she had energy to burn, and so she did.
Then, around age 10 she slowed down, like an engine running out of steam. Suddenly my little wiggle worm was wiggling no longer.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many girls become significantly less active in their preteen years, due to the physiological and psychological changes of puberty.
Even earlier though, my daughter and her friends rigidly defined themselves. By first grade, Kira was the Athlete, Hannah the Scientist, Annie the Artist. My daughter embraced the role of the Reader. It’s true she was as much a bookworm as a wiggle worm, and I wouldn’t change that for a second. But she also became a couch potato who should’ve gotten more exercise than she did. She reclined while the girls she defined as “the sporty girls” had all the physical fun. And I should’ve done more to get her off that couch.
I can’t blame her slow down purely on voracious reading, social expectations, my parenting or even puberty. The fact is there were, and still are, few opportunities in our urban home for girls to have casual involvement with sports of any kind. Unless a young girl wants to join a competitive team, or wants to work her way towards pointe shoes, there’s not a heck of a lot for her to do. It’s a sad irony that just as girls bodies change and they need to remain active more than ever, their opportunities disappear. The pre-pubescent girl is too old for fantasy frolic, too self conscious about her new body parts to move with abandon, too young to go to Y’s or other fitness facilities unsupervised.
So what is a girl’s parent, particularly an urban parent, to do? Here are some ideas I wish I had thought of when my girl was still wiggling.
-Start young, before puberty. Don’t wait for the potential slow down. Cultivate a generally active lifestyle. When you can walk somewhere instead of taking a subway, bus or car, do so. If there are bags to carry, have your daughter use her muscle power to help.
-Float the message that we don’t need to be uber-athletes to be strong and fit. We just need to keep moving.
-Create active rituals out of daily family life. Take a walk around the block every evening before or after dinner. Institute a nightly dance party. Play an active version of Simon Says. If you have the space, keep equipment like mini-trampolines, yoga mats, and physioballs in common areas where you can encourage your girl to jump, bounce, do some cat-cows, or downward dogs. And do some yourself. As in all aspects of parenting, you should lead by example.
-Look for outside partners that promote kid and family fitness. Yoga studios with Mommy and Me, Kid, and Family yoga. Gyms that not only have Child Care, but also Family Fitness classes and hours when older kids can use the equipment. Nature clubs that take hikes and offer camping trips.
-Don’t rule out competition entirely. Sporty competition provides obvious metaphors for the ups and downs, successes and failures of life. Let your daughter compete if she wants to, but don’t push it if she doesn’t.
-Provide safe physical competition at home. Play games, run races, have sit-up contests. Let her win to bolster her confidence, even when she really hasn’t won. It’s better than okay to let her be the best every now and then, it’s good parenting! But don’t go overboard and make her faux victories too frequent or obvious. Everyone has to lose sometime, even her.
-Take up a new family sport. Choose something you haven’t mastered, a sport as potentially intimidating for you as it might be for your daughter. It’s great for kids to see parents take on challenges and succeed to the best of their ability. It’s particularly inspiring for daughters to see moms push themselves and take physical risks.
-Follow her lead. Pay attention to the things she gravitates towards. Encourage her to try everything and look for strengths, even when it seems there are none. Praise even the slightest of physical gifts. A girl who can’t throw a ball to save her life, might be a decent runner. A daughter who looks like a drowning cat while swimming, might rock at doing cannonballs. So what if she can’t do a cartwheel? She’s a master at rolling downhill.
The good news is my daughter found her way back to physical fitness in her later high school years. A college junior now, she runs and swims regularly. And finally she’s learned that yes, yoga is worth the bother.
But honestly? She still spends way too much time on the couch.
So don’t make my mistakes. And don’t wait. Get your girl moving now and move right along with her. You won’t regret it. I promise!