My Six-Year-Old Daughter Will Never Be An Olympic Gymnast

Like millions of girls across the country, my six-year-old daughter recently decided she wants to be an Olympic gymnast. I don’t have the heart to tell her she’s too late.

The other night, during one of those NBC mini-biopics, medalist Jordyn Wieber said nonchalantly that she was “discovered” around age three, when her parents and teachers noticed her unusual strength. She then took a short detour into the study of dance before returning to begin her gymnastics career at four. And last week, a friend told me she’d asked her five-year-old daughter’s gymnastics instructor how to get her kid into the elite training she saw some of the others doing at the same gym. The teacher said those girls had been handpicked for the advanced track the year before. My friend seemed crestfallen.

In this age of hyper-parenting, we’re all desperate for our kids to have a “passion” by preschool and a “hook” by junior high. A mother I know said her daughter discovered her passion too late—her junior year in high school—for it to matter for college admission. The mother seemed disappointed. But many people, including some I know well (ahem), take years, if not a lifetime, to find their true passion. Might all our focus on finding one so early keep our kids from defining authentic paths all their own?

As the author Madeline Levine pointed out in her New York Times column “Raising Successful Children,” today’s parents need to butt out of their kids’ lives a bit more and let them find their own way:

“While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.”

A robust sense of self is hard to achieve if someone is always looking over your shoulder — correcting, cajoling, or comforting. One of the hardest parts of parenting is knowing when to step back and let go, of trusting that your child will figure a lot of things out on their own and not necessarily as you might have envisioned. Which is why when my daughter said she wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, I didn’t say a word.

Since then, she’s taken up a vigorous handstand and cartwheel practice. The other night we were at a party with mostly adult friends and she was at loose ends. After a while I noticed her missing and went looking for her. I found her alone in the basement, breathlessly flipping leg over leg as she turned cartwheels and handstands in a valiant attempt to keep her toes pointed and not collapse onto the soft white rug beneath her.

In that moment she wasn’t going for gold at the Olympics, but I felt pride and something even better, a sense of fullness in seeing my child charting her own path to that robust sense of self Levine wrote about. She wasn’t performing for anyone but herself, which made it all the sweeter. When she caught me spying on her, she smiled, paused for breath, and kept right on going.