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Point Your Toes You Fat Cow!

Time to confess. I watch a few really bad TV shows. I watch America's Next Top Model. I sometimes enjoy the ridiculous drunken antics of Snooki and Deena. And lately I have been peeking in on this truly terrible waste of time called Dance Moms. For those of you who have better things to do with your lives let me summarize. The show is about a wicked witch of a dance coach, a bunch of competitive young dancers and their overprivileged whiny moms. Each episode, which is most certainly staged, involves the teacher shouting at her dancers, the moms shouting at her and everyone gossiping and bitching behind each others backs. It is not a good show. It does however raise the question about how much abuse one parent will subject their child to in order for them to "succeed".

I used to be a gymnast. I competed in gymnastics in the 1980's and early 90's when it was all about Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug (that tiny thing who heroically, and unnecessarily it turned out, did her vault with a broken ankle in the 1996 Olympics) and coach Bela Karoyli. Karoyli was a god in American gymnastics. Parents moved their children across the country for the opportunity to train at his gym. The belief was that your child's path to her Olympic dream went directly through him.

There is no doubt that Bela Karoyli produced champions. He also verbally abused young girls. Many of his former gymnasts have admitted to being called endearing names like "pregnant goat" and "obese cow". And even if you ignore the verbal taunting, elite gymnastics is a brutal sport of constant injury, starvation, and endless disappointment.  Of thousands of hopefuls, only six girls (and 3 alternates) go to the Olympics every 4 years.

It's not like other high level sports are much more forgiving. Only 0.5% of college students who play division 1 football will ever play in the NFL. Those are not good odds. All athletes play through pain, injury and illness. In order to get the best out of their competitors coaches often resort to bullying, shouting and name calling. At the very least they have to push young athletes to their limit, past the point where they thought they could go. And parents have to, for the most part, sit on the sidelines and just trust that the coach knows what he is doing.

We all know what happened to the children who were entrusted to Coach Sandusky. But what about the girls who were told to "lose a few pounds"? Or simply the ones who were pushed to do just one more rep. We all want our kids to succeed. But how much is too much?

Clearly no parent is going to allow their child to be sexually abused in order for them to win medals. Where it becomes trickier is when there is no clear abuse happening. What about when the sport is just hard? What is our responsibility as parents? I do not have an easy answer. Maya loves to dance. At some point in her life she might want to study dance at a serious level. Dancers struggle through all kinds of difficulties, from pulled muscles to bloody toes to the dreaded issue of weight management. Some parents, my husband included, believe that just being involved in the world of dance could be a toxic environment for a young girl. But what if she loves it. Matthew's response "She might love Mc. Donalds too but that doesn't mean we are going to let her eat it every day. She might think heroin was fantastic."

As a karate teacher I give children pushups when they do not behave in class. When they say they are tired I tell them to keep going anyway. My job is to teach kids to not take the easy way out, to not be lazy, that they can always get better. My job is to take them to the point where they cannot work any harder and then take them a little farther. I like to think that this perseverance is something which they will use in other areas of their life as well. That it is a good thing. However, for some parents, when their kid says they are tired they let them sit down. In my classes I have seen a mom get her kid some juice in the middle of class because he said he was thirsty. One of my 3 year olds once went to get his pants tied and came back eating a cracker. In the middle of karate class. Some of you may be thinking so what, he was hungry! But I gave both of these parents a hard time. By making my karate kids wait to get water even when they say they are thirsty am I being abusive?

The current generation of kids coming out of college now is sometimes referred to as "teacup" kids. In other words, they are terribly fragile and cannot handle life's difficulties. " If kids don’t have the opportunity to deal with life’s smaller disappointments as they grow up, they won’t have the coping skills to deal with life’s larger frustrations as adults. Giving your child a chance to fail, to deal with loss, to experience sadness, to not make the team, may be the best gift you can provide. (taken from Dr. Paula Calabrese, Ph. D,

Ok, so we shouldn't coddle our kids. And we shouldn't let their coach rape them. But what level of struggle is acceptable? From the outside it is easy to say, "I would never..." I would never let anyone talk to my child that way. I would never let her be in pain. But what if she really really loves it? What if she is really talented? What if her coach, like Bela Karoyli, is the absolute best in the country? How much is too much to win?

Unfortunately there is no clear cut answer. Parents are going to have to find their own comfort zone, and then pray they have picked the right one for their child. For me, it is still a work in progress. Because of my years in the martial arts I find a certain level of pain normal. Muscles get sore. Occasionally things get injured. Sometimes sparring is really scary. If Maya continues to train she will probably come home one day and complain of being tired. She may say that someone hit her really hard and she doesn't want to go to sparring class anymore. She may even want to quit. I will have to decide what to tell her, how hard to push. And on top of that, somehow manage to do this from the point of view of her mother, not a karate teacher. And what if she loves gymnastics, like I did. And one day she comes home and says that her coach told her that if she lost just five pounds she would be able to do a back handspring better. Then what?

For me anyway, for my own daughter, a bit of a struggle is a good thing. If it is making her a stronger person. If the thing she has chosen to do is good for her body and challenging for her brain. If it is teaching her valuable life skills. If she loves it. If her coaches and teachers are firm but caring. If they understand that she may be a the next Anna Pavlova but she is still a child. And most of all, if there is something more to be gained than simply first place. Because trophies are great. Winning is great. Everyone wants their child to succeed and there is no better reward than the top of the podium, right? Just ask those Olympians, those 14 year old, 85 pound " useless cows". I am sure the gold medal was absolutely, positively worth it. Right?


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