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Out There: The Fine Line Parents Must Run

Make sure your children are running for the right reasons.

Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article from a German news site.

“Get a load of this,” she said.

Because the story was in German and my knowledge of the language is limited to Ich bin ein jelly donut, I inferred any and all knowledge from the accompanying photo of parents and children on a track.

“Oh, that’s cute,” I said. “Parents and kids running together!”

“Look closer,” she replied.

When I actually paid attention, I gasped. “Are…are they dragging their kids down the track?”

After employing the services of Google Translate, I read a patchy English version of the story of a 40-meter dash for 3- and 4-year olds:

“The children were flown at the hands of parents two feet high in the air…since the parents wanted to win. The children were crying.”

That’s right, the kids weren’t racing. They were being dragged by their über-competitive parents.

Wie bitte? That’s not okay, my little jelly donuts.

Anyone who thinks this behavior is limited to our Deutschland friends is delusional. Go to almost any kids’ sporting event in America, and you’ll see your very own episode of Parents Gone Wild. Some children aren’t children anymore, but an extension of Mom and Dad’s unrealized athletic dreams. Their parents sit behind home plate at little league games with radar guns, clock splits at the track, and insist to all who will listen that their kid is headed for a full-ride athletic scholarship as soon as these cute little front teeth grow in.

Not all parents are glory-seeking psychos, I know. But they are definitely a growing subset of the Mom and Dad crowd. That’s a scary thing for the kids.

As a child, I hated running. I only ran when I had to, and I only had to once a year, when our gym teacher made us run the mile for fitness testing. She’d stand at the top of the hill behind our school, using a megaphone to blast encouragement at us:

“YAY, EAGLES! BOO, TURKEYS!”

The athletic kids, who finished quickly and barely broke a sweat, were eagles. She’d send those kids back out onto the mile course to taunt the turkeys to the finish line. It should go without saying that I was very much a turkey. The experience was enough to turn me away from running for a long (looooong) time.

And that was just gym class. Imagine if my parents had been the ones putting the pressure on me. If I associated running with being dragged 40 meters while crying, I wouldn’t be writing for a running magazine today; I’d probably be manning the hotline at Butterball.

It wasn’t until much later, when I was an adult, that I learned that running could be fun. (I know! This discovery shocked me, too!) For too long, I had associated running with something I had to be good at in order to participate. People run to win, and I was not a winner. I was a turkey.

But then a friend convinced me to train for a 5K—no pressure, just for fun. On race day, I was nowhere near the top podium spot, and I did not care. When I crossed that finish line, I felt like a winner anyway. And then I felt sad, because why should anyone have to wait that long to feel that good?

There are a lot of lessons kids can learn from running. “It’s painful and sucky” should not be one of them. Let’s stop screwing up what should be a positive experience.

As parents, we want our kids to be great. Of course we do! But we don’t get to force them to be great on our terms. Maybe little Joanie is an eagle. Or maybe she’s a turkey. You don’t get to decide. Just because you once held the school record for the 200-meter dash doesn’t mean you get to force your son into a pair of track spikes to carry on the family honor. It certainly doesn’t mean you should drag him (kicking and screaming, no less) so you can have bragging rights.

We grown-ups had our shot. Now let the kids have theirs. While we’re at it, let’s all have some fun.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.