Should my child be running already?

My three-year-old son begins every task with the interjection, “So…”. It’s his way of announcing that, alongside carrying out the task, he will also explain to us how the task should be done properly. Drawing a picture? “So… Get the paper and put it like this…” Putting shoes on? “So… We undo the laces…”

It’s not his fault, of course. From the moment we changed his first nappy in hospital (I have the video), to every task we help him with to this day, my wife and I begin our explanations in the same way – “So” – even though we try not to. Just this morning, beginning a jigsaw puzzle together, I couldn’t help myself: “So… You get the edges and I’ll get…”

We’ve inflicted this on him. Because of us, because of our failure to modify our language, our son is destined to forever sound like an over-zealous cookery teacher about to begin a practical demonstration.

This may not be the worst of our inadvertent indoctrination, though.

As parents, we’ve always agreed that, although there will be no pressure on our kids in terms of the physical activity they pursue, we will at least do all we can to make them active. The thing is, of course, that in our household, running is the physical activity that gets highest billing.

The sport most likely to be on television is athletics, the books and magazines stacked next to the toilet are about running, and few weekends go by without an outing to some race or other, whether it be the local Parkrun or something with more razzamatazz. And each morning at 5am I make my son perform sprint drills in the garden.

OK, that last bit wasn’t true, but you get the idea. I might say that my kids have freedom over how they choose to be physical, I might even convince myself of it at times, but is it real freedom? Or is it the kind of freedom enjoyed by those in North Korean elections: you’re free to vote, but there’s only one candidate?

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on myself. After all, tomorrow I will take my son to his ballet class (his cousin does ballet, so he demanded likewise, although when asked what ballet was, his demonstration seemed more akin to some pagan version of the long jump, involving a foot stool and a stolen Ikea tape-measure). And I will watch, welling up, as he shows Miss Hannah his pencil-point toes, his rabbit-ear hands, and prances around pretending to be a hot-air balloon, all the time uniquely maladroit in his co-ordination (another thing we’ve inflicted on him).

Nonetheless, when we entered our then two-year-old son in his first race – a woodland 1km – we wrestled with our consciences: was this a fun activity for him to experience alongside his older cousins; or was this his parents pushing him too strongly in one direction? And should a child of that age be running that distance in the first place?

The scientific community provides little guidance on the subject. Despite hours on Google Scholar, I’m yet to turn up any papers that explore how much running is good for kids, and how much bad. For the time being, then, it’s left to our common sense.

After his first race, as my son tucked into some white-chocolate mice – part of his finisher’s goody bag – my wife and I realised, that in the rush to get out of the house, we had forgotten to give him breakfast. So perhaps common sense isn’t our strength. Nonetheless, here’s my take on the issue:

1. It has to be the child’s decision. We have never told our son to run. His life provides lots of opportunities for him to run, and he often does so, but if he prefers not to, that’s fine. Running is only ever a suggestion.

2. The distance is irrelevant. In retrospect, I feel fine about my son’s first race, and would feel fine about him running the first lap of our local Parkrun, should he want to. Go and watch some pre-schoolers playing in a park – to prevent arrest, it’s probably best if you’re related to one of them – and see how much distance they cover in an hour: you’ll wonder why you ever feel tired at the end of a run.

3. Separate their running and yours. When running with my son, he gets my undivided attention. If he’s running the start of a race with me, or the end, then his experience is the important thing, not mine. If I’m constantly thinking about when I can speed up, he’ll pick up on that, so I try to be clear in my own head about when I’m running for me, and when I’m running for him.

4. Praise the effort, not the achievement. Not just in running, but in all aspects of his life, my wife and I try to praise how my son has gone about something, rather than rewarding the outcome. Our theory is that, as a three-year-old, he will for a long time be the slowest in any field, and may always remain that way. So we congratulate him for his efforts, for carrying on when he is tired, for running with a smile on his face. That way, we reckon, he will always know that we value his participation more than any result.

5. Make sure they eat breakfast before a race.

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