Using the gym as punishment didn't work — until it did

Using the gym as punishment didn't work — until it did

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SALT LAKE CITY — I knew as soon as the words began falling out of my mouth that it was a mistake.

My 13-year-old daughter had run afoul of the house rules and punishment had been left to me. The issue wasn't a new one, and I was bothered more by the lack of remorse than I was by what to outsiders might appear a simple mistake.

My children know that accepting responsibility will bring mercy when it comes to punishment. Otherwise, there is a reason my husband calls me "The Hangin' Judge."

I sat her down, ignored the eye roll and started with, "I love you." (No, I did not resort to, "This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you," but that turned out to be the case.)

"This is going to seem like a weird punishment," I said. "But, you have to go to the gym with me every day that you're not participating in some other sport."

As soon as I said it I became aware of the problem I'd just created. I've worked very hard to ensure my two daughters see exercise as an enjoyable, even necessary, part of a productive life.


Now, with one desperate attempt, I'd seemingly labeled the gym — "kid prison."

"Everyone doesn't like running," she said. "And you can't make me like it!"

It was as I had just deliberately driven my car into a ditch that I'd desperately tried to avoid all my life. I never wanted my girls to see the gym or workouts as punishment.

It was because I have seen the physical, spiritual and mental benefits of exercise that I chose this particular punishment. I thought more physical activity would improve her pre-teen mood and give her more energy in a much more healthy way than the soda she begged for every day.

As I listened to an angry lecture on why this was the worst punishment any mother ever dreamed up, I realized something else.

I had forgotten our first trip to the gym together in August. Now that was a disaster!

For months, my daughter had begged me for a gym membership. Finally, in July, I obliged.

I tried to make her workout with me. Big mistake. I refused to let her use any equipment unless I showed her how to do so first because (1) I didn't want her to get hurt and (2) I didn't want her bothering anyone else working out in the gym.

Children are not always welcome at the gym by adults seeking to leave the pressure and chaos of the world at home.

"Exercise helps me focus. It makes me feel better about everything, and I'm hoping it does the same for you."

So I was worried, and I didn't handle it well.

She complained the entire morning. I badgered her to stay with me, push harder and to whisper. Stressed out and disappointed, I told her that our gym dates were done. She said she was glad, called me controlling and stomped off to her room.

So as I considered how I'd handled that first gym visit and how I'd framed her punishment, I realized that if I ever wanted her to enjoy the gym, I'd better change my domineering ways.

"You don't have to work out with me," I said, which interestingly ended her diatribe. "You just have to walk or jog on the treadmill 20 minutes and then you can do your own workout until I finish."

She was suspicious. I was nonchalant.

"Exercise helps me focus," I said. "It makes me feel better about everything, and I'm hoping it does the same for you. There is a lot to do at the gym, and with the air being dirty, we're sort of stuck with indoor options for now."

The next day I woke her up to go and endured a barrage of complaints about fatigue and stomach aches. I didn't argue, just said that if she didn't like this punishment, I could simply ground her from all electronics for a week.

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She quickly got ready, sulked the entire time, packed four granola bars in a bag, and stomped to the car.

We checked in and we walked to the treadmills. She walked at a massive incline and I swallowed the urge to tell her that was a silly thing to do.

After she walked for 30 minutes (notice the extra 10 minutes), she hopped on the elliptical for 10 minutes and then did abdominal exercises for 15 minutes.

When I walked over to tell her I was finished, she begged to do one more machine and urged me to give another a try. She was pleasant, enthused and easy to get along with.

I was in shock.

The positive attitude lasted throughout the day, and despite some soreness in her abs the next day, she was eager to go again.

After a couple of trips, it wasn't about the punishment. I still think I made a massive mistake calling it a punishment. I also made a huge error when I tried to be too controlling, and of course, when I threatened to never take her again.

But despite all of my mistakes, we found our way to a pleasant place. She doesn't yet understand what better fitness will offer her. She doesn't listen to most of what I say, least of all, why it's important to push through discomfort.

But I see her doing it on her own. I see her challenging me to push harder and I see her realizing benefits of physical activity.

And I will not make the mistake of mentioning these observations to her, at least until she is dragging me to new activities.

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Amy Donaldson


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