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A steep learning curve

The Times
You love outdoor activities, but how do you get your kids to feel the same way, asks Helena Pozniak

Rosalind, a failed sailor but otherwise functioning adult, felt her heart sink when her husband came home with a new dinghy in tow. Aged 42, she has spent most of her adult life avoiding a sport that her parents had forced her to "enjoy” since the age of 4.

"Sailing was vile. Bad weather, grey sea, stressy Dad and throwing up for hours on end,” she says. To her horror, every summer and most weekends were spent sailing, simply because her parents were so keen on the sport. She has refused to do the same with her three young boys. "I think that I was too compliant as a child to say to my parents that I didn’t like it.”

When active parents start a family, they fondly imagine their offspring following in their sporting footsteps, be it bivouacking down on a peak, riding the waves or trekking the hills. And they start them early; it’s not unusual for children as young as 4 to be thrown into a dinghy solo or to be taken hiking. But what are the risks of coaxing them into vigorous activities so young? Over-exertion, injury, anxiety and a lifelong loathing of their parents’ passion? Or is it possible to foster a love and aptitude for a sport that will flourish into adulthood? "Young children are extremely vulnerable to parental pressure,” says Sue Cowan-Jenssen, a psychotherapist. "You have to ask how much of the parents’ ego is in it and how much the children want to do it. Young children are desperate to imitate and please their parents but as they grow into their teens the capacity for rebellion is huge.”

Researchers at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, have found that parents who encourage their children to do sport generally fall into one of two categories. Some gently encourage children to develop new skills, others push and demand success at all costs and are less focused on developing skills than winning. "All very well if the child is competent,” says Dr Sophia Jowett, a sport and exercise psychologist at the University of Loughborough, who has collaborated in the research.

"But what if the child is talented in other areas and the parents are just pushing the wrong buttons?” When taken to extremes, the child may eventually drop the sport altogether, and for ever. Those parents who focus on learning the sport and becoming competent are more likely to foster a love of sport, says Dr Jowett.

Put simply, it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it. "Don’t shove it down the child’s throat,” says David Ritchie, the national sailing coach at the Royal Yachting Association, and a father. "The most common mistake is parents, mostly blokes, getting too wrapped up with the technical side, rather than focusing on children’s emotional safety. A child’s early sessions should be a warm, fun, utterly relaxing and a brief experience.”

The mountaineer Bear Grylls, one of Britain’s youngest adventurers, agrees. He began climbing with his father when he was just 5. In 1998 he became the youngest British climber to scale Everest, a record he held until last year. He intends to give his three-year-old son Jesse a taste of climbing in a couple of years. "I want his experiences to be relaxed, always with a flask of tea and lots of rests, so that we are just hanging out together.” Nonetheless, Grylls says that he "rarely” felt physically up to the challenge of climbing when he began. "But that wasn’t the point. Climbing gave me an identity when I was young, a feeling of pride, a bond with my dad. Those were what mattered.”

But at what age should parents introduce their child to a new sport? "As long as you think of their needs, I don’t think any age is too young,” says Robin Beadle, a mountain guide, whose two daughters, Carrie, 11, and Nat, 9, began climbing and trekking as soon as they were able. As babies, he had taken the girls into the mountains in a backpack. "The sport gave Carrie a lot of confidence and self-reliance; being able to do something that other children her age couldn’t,” says Beadle. "We never push the girls but, so far, they have never wanted to stop.” His children have also embraced canoeing, off-piste skiing, sailing and caving, and graduated recently to jumping crevasses and climbing 4,000m (13,000ft) Alpine peaks; unsurprising when you consider that Nat completed her first roped full-day climb on Dow Crag, in the Lake District, at the age of 5.

"You need to keep them interested by thinking like a child, finding things to fire their imagination, such as funny rock formations or drinking from icicles,” says Beadle. "Children are natural climbers; we become more cautious only as we grow older. They occasionally get scared, but part of climbing is overcoming your fear.” The key to success, he says, is endless encouragement, regular treat snacks and decent clothing. "A child can flag very quickly because of lack of food or temperature.”

Children are more vulnerable to hypothermia and heat stroke than adults, but paediatricians are cautious at expressing concern about exercise in a climate where children often get too little. "As long as the

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