E1 is naturally quite a shy girl, and that has only been reinforced by the kind of isolation that a big move necessarily initially creates. Being suddenly cut off from her friends, and spending all her time with only a few key people instead, E1’s social skills have rather frozen up. No, if I’m honest, she’s probably regressed.
So, I was just a little nervous when my mother signed her up for tennis lessons. On the one hand, I was chuffed that my mum wanted to do this for her, and really excited that E1 would be doing something where she could interact with other kids and make some friends in our new area. But on the other hand, I didn’t know if she would handle this new situation well at all. I warned my mother ahead of time that she might struggle with fear and shyness on the day, and asked her to please not push E1 if she balked at participating… To please just let her watch at first, and then join in in her own time… My mother, surprised to hear this, agreed somewhat reluctantly, and I suddenly didn’t feel convinced that she really would. I remembered a hand on my back, pushing gently but insistently, and a voice that said, “Don’t you want to…? Go on! Go on! You’ll have fun… You’ll see… Go on!” I remember how much I hated that pushing hand, that pushing encouragement, and I decided that I would go to the lesson as well, to ensure that my daughter had all the room she needed to be comfortable in this unfamiliar environment.
And the lesson was a disaster from the first moment — everything I feared and more. In that strange place, that cavernous building, with the echoing sounds of other players on other courts, and all the unfamiliar faces, and the parents watching from the sidelines, she completely froze up. Did she want to go and play with the other kids? “NOOOOOoooooo!” So, I let her sit on my lap, as her extroverted little sister tried very hard to escape my mother and toddle over to join all the big kids who were running and jumping and swinging rackets around. I tried again, but she was adamant. Noooo. And then buried herself deeper into my chest. I asked again gently a few more times, but to no avail.
After awhile, it all began to feel silly and I started to distrust my instincts. Was I being ridiculously indulgent to let her sit on the sidelines of a class her grandmother had paid good money for? My mother had spent most of the class looking over at us with an expression that mixed concern, disappointment, irritation, and confusion all into one, and I was starting to feel the guilt. I shrugged my shoulders and gave in. “You try, then,” I said, and Mum came over and guided E1 to her feet and then, with that hand pushing gently but insistently on her back, walked her over to other kids at the net.
She stayed with her as the teacher threw a ball to each child to swing at in turn. With my mother’s hands on the racket, E1 swung and hit her ball, and the teacher called out encouragingly, “Good job!” And the burden of having to endure praise for something she was doing under such obvious duress was too much for her, and she split the air with a wail that turned heads three courts away and threw herself on the ground as if she’d been shot and proceeded to cry like the baby she’s only just outgrown. The teacher was completely shocked, my mother was surprised, and I was neither, but completely embarrassed at my child’s behaviour and angry with myself for putting her in that position when I knew it was bound to go that way.
In the car on the way home, my mother mentioned several times that pre-school would fix this. Pre-school was the thing. I should consider sending her to pre-school. I don’t know why, but I hated the thought — not just because I am nervous of letting someone else take responsibility for her egg allergy, but also because, in my own isolated world, I like being with my two little companions. I don’t want to break up we three just yet. And besides, I told myself, pre-school might not fix it at all — I have been through pre-school, school, and university, and I still hate getting up and doing things like tennis lessons in public. I am thirty-mmmm and I still don’t play tennis.
“Well, perhaps it’s best to just drop it and not take her back again. She obviously doesn’t want to do it.” My mother sounded reasonable, but I could also also hear the irritation crisping the edges of her words.
“Can you get a refund?” I asked. My mother had paid for the whole series of lessons up front. I wasn’t actually keen on the idea — I don’t want to teach my daughter that she can get out of uncomfortable situations by pitching a public fit — but I wanted to know if Mum could get the money back if it came to that.
“No.” Her reply was almost haughty, the irritation burning through quite clearly now. Ah, there would be no giving up then.
I spent the rest of the week listening to my instincts, and we talked about tennis every single day. “Next time,” I told her, “Next time, you can’t sit on Mummy’s lap. Next time, you have to get up and play with the other kids.” She resisted, I insisted — calmly, evenly, constantly, and for days on end. I talked about the teacher and the other girls in the class, and used their names when I did. I talked about the running and the jumping and the rackets. “When we get there, I want you to go on the court and play,” I repeated again and again, like it was some annoying song that had got stuck in my head.
And I told her that when people say good job or well done or good girl, all she had to do was say thank you. That’s all. “But I don’t like ‘good job’!” she protested angrily. It’s been a reoccurring problem for some time that I’ve ignored in the hopes she’d outgrow it. I know that, I assured her, but still did not change my tune: “thank you” was the only response I’d accept. And I peppered her days with more of that unwelcome praise than she’s ever known, until her “thank yous” began to come without hesitation, albeit tinged with a little boredom as this game grew tiresome.
When Saturday rolled round, I was nervous but hopeful. We talked about tennis as she got ready, talked about it on the drive to the club. Her spirits were good, my hopes lifted a bit higher. I made sure we got there early, so she had time and space to find her confidence.
And when the teacher walked onto the court, E1 ran right up to meet her. “I’m going to play today!” she announced, and then proceeded to take every moment of the entire lesson in her stride. When she had trouble, she simply said, “I can’t do that,” and the instructor helped her. When she was praised… she said, “Thank you.”
She was enjoying herself — a little nervous, still, I could see that, but enjoying herself nonetheless. She’s like her dad, I thought to myself, she needs to suss things out ahead of time in order to feel comfortable. She’s like her mum too — she doesn’t like to be put on the spot. She looked over at me occasionally — but not too often — to check that I was seeing her doing so well. I tried to look proud in a casual sort of way, not wanting to break the spell. But inside, I was over the moon. Overjoyed to see her handling things — and having such fun — but also so pleased to have my faith in my own instincts restored. Without that, I had felt utterly lost.
When the lesson finished, my daughter came bounding up to me, her face beaming and confidence radiating from her very being. “Mummy, I did play tennis!” and I put my arms around her and gave her such a big squeeze.
And the grin never left her face as we left the court, and the confidence carried her aloft as we walked back to the car. Until she decided, in her sheer enjoyment of life, to run to the car… and then she tripped… and fell headlong and landed with full force on her forehead. And as I held her tight to me as she howled and I rocked, and as I watched a massive goose-egg form right there before my eyes, she wailed, “I don’t like tennis!!! I don’t want tennis anymore!!!” Just like that, back to square one.