Often in the past 10 months while doing my job as a wellness coach at the YMCA, I’ve observed fathers showing their sons how to work out. I’ve witnessed many teaching styles – both encouraging and demanding and everything in between. Some of the kids look proud, cognizant that they are getting special one-on-one time with their dads and that they’ve entered a sacred space that had previously been off-limits to them because of their youthfulness; others look like they are living out a prison sentence. As a woman, I don’t understand the “take no prisoners” approach…that is simply too alien to how I interact with people in general, not to mention my own daughter. However, on some level, I get that, regardless of the style of interaction, something important transpires when a father decides that it’s time to teach and guide his son in how to navigate the world of the gym, how to be physically active, and get stronger.
Girls don’t usually have this experience.
My own dad started going regularly to a fitness club some time during my teen years but I was never invited and I have my suspicions that he spent most of the time when there schmoozing with his fellow gym rats. And mom was not physical in any sense of the word. The one time she signed up for a series of Yoga classes, she went to the first one, hated it, and then pretended to my dad, brother, and me that she went to the remaining classes – leaving the house on the scheduled evening each week as if she was actually going. (I didn’t learn about the subterfuge until many years later!) She was a life-long smoker with scoliosis and depression who let fear, pain, and misinformation inform her choices about what was in her best interest. Her inactivity as well as other poor lifestyle choices eventually caught up with her; towards the end of her life she developed emphysema and was ultimately bed-ridden, unable to even turn over on her own.
I know that not every boy whose dad indoctrinates him into the gym brotherhood ends up being a healthy adult, but it’s a head start, right?! I also know that there are lots of other things at play here such as modeling what it means to be a man and a father…and as such it feels sacred to witness and observe.
My parent’s generation didn’t yet value physical activity to the extent that we do now. Despite our increased knowledge, the gender gap still exists. It’s rarely a mom showing the kids the ropes, and rarely is it a daughter receiving the instructions.
Today at work I watched a grandfather and grandson go through the time-honored ritual. As I did my rounds around the gym, I overheard the older man patiently instruct the teenager. It left me wondering…what impact would it have had on me to have had a similar experience (or better yet, multiple experiences!) with one of my parents when I was that boy’s age? Would the trajectory of my life been different if I had developed more self-confidence in my abilities, strength, and appearance at a younger age; if I hadn’t waited until relatively late in life to embrace physical activity and wellness? I don’t ask with regret (well, maybe a little!) but with genuine curiosity….