Teaching Kids Perseverance on the Monkey Bars

Playground monkey barsEditor’s Note: In a post for an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month.  He will be offering different advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart from this series.

Let me say this right up front – not every child masters the monkey bars. Unlike sitting, standing, walking, potty training, or riding a tricycle, the monkey bars are not considered a developmental milestone. At well-child visits, doctors don’t ask, “Has your child mastered the monkey bars yet?” the same way they ask, “How many words are in your child’s vocabulary?” Trust me, I’m a pediatrician. There are even successful adults working alongside you who have never been able to master the monkey bars.  Trust me, I’m one of them.  I was never able to climb a rope or do a pull-up either. I always blamed my inabilities on a poorly-centered center of gravity. But enough about me. This is about our daughter who, happily, did learn to master the monkey bars. She absolutely had to.

Emily’s best friends in grade school were tiny wisps of girls who didn’t touch the ground when they walked because they were too light for gravity. For them, the monkey bars were as natural as breathing – they didn’t have to think twice before sailing from one end to the other, with each girl outdoing the other in speed and panache. When the monkey bars became the “must” place to be during recess, Emily was in a tough spot.  Her feet did touch the ground while walking and the monkey bars were not automatic like breathing – they were more like hyperventilating. Not being a wisp came in very handy for Emily when she played sports later in life, but this was first grade and nothing mattered except the monkey bars.

Knowing no one would be at the school playground on Saturday, we packed everyone in the van and headed there for a monkey bars crash course. First, our oldest child (who was in third grade) tried to inspire Em by hopping onto the launch step and zipping all the way across, gracefully swinging from each arm to get to the next bar.  He dismounted and encouragingly said, “See, Em, it’s easy!” Emily didn’t find this inspiring. In fact, she started crying. Next, the youngest child (who was in preschool) needed a turn. We held him up and walked beneath the monkey bars as he touched each one with his hands. Then he was off to the sandbox.

Finally, Emily stood on the launch step, grabbed the first bar with her left hand, stepped, and…just dangled there.  Her right arm waved toward the next bar, but her body did not obey. She dropped to the ground and sobbed, “See?! I told you I can’t do it!” Of course, we asked ourselves how much of the obstacle was physical or mental.  We pretended to be sports psychologists for a little while, probing her deepest monkey bar phobias. Yes, she was afraid of failure.  Yes, she was afraid of embarrassment.  Yes, she was sure everyone else was better at monkey bars. Yes, she would never, ever, ever have friends, in her whole life, if she couldn’t conquer the monkey bars. Ok, enough psychology – there were fewer than 48 hours before Monday’s recess. A miraculous cure was in order, and it had to be immediate.

We tried different approaches. First, we held onto her as she swung from one bar to the next, so she would have a sense of what success felt like. Then we stood under the second bar and cheered her on, “You can make it, Emily. C’mon, girl!” We even tried a footstool, a safety net of sorts, for her to land on between bars. Nothing worked for more than a single bar, after which she just dangled.

And then an epiphany occurred. To this day we can’t remember whose idea this was, but one of us wondered if the monkey bars were simply too purposeless for Emily. She was, and still is, very task oriented. Even back then, she kept lists and checked items off after she finished with them. Also, Emily has always been a person of letters; she loves words and writing. When she first learned the ABCs, she would sit for hours writing pages and pages of just alphabet letters. So, in desperation, we took small strips of paper, wrote words on them, and taped one to the middle of each monkey bar. The lettering was small enough so that she had to be right against the bar to read the word. For reasons none of us could fathom, this far-fetched gimmick worked! Emily started at the launch step, grabbed the first bar with her left hand, eyed the next bar, and flung her right arm – plus her body! – to read the word on the next paper strip. Shouting out “DOG!,” she held the second bar with her right hand and began her swing to the next bar. “CAT,” she read from the next strip, and on it went. Eight bars, eight words, one cure. We changed the words each time and practiced until blisters started to appear and we worried she’d be too sore to join the girls on Monday. When we finally left that afternoon, we cut the strips down to tiny nubbins. My wife and I then high-fived each other like we were Martha and Bela Karolyi.

At recess on Monday, Emily smiled to herself as she confidently mounted the launch step and saw the paper remnants on the bars. Although she no longer needed to read words to get across, she felt more secure with the visual reminders. It wasn’t a gold or a silver medal performance at recess that day, but it was enough.

As we sat with our now-grown kids watching the gymnastics competition at this year’s Olympics, we wondered out loud how Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman’s parents got them through their own monkey bar-type crises. And what other tribulations they had to overcome to be the confident and accomplished young women they are today.  We felt pride for our country, pride for the parents who got their Olympian kids to marvelous milestones, and pride in our own kids for making it across the monkey bars of their lives.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado.  He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).


Image: Playground jungle gym via Shutterstock

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  1. by Elizabeth Springer

    On August 17, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    This is a wonderful testimony to the perseverance not only of kids, but also of parents. The demonstration of our love to our kids comes in many forms, but among the most important is involvement in the everyday crises of their lives. Our kids’ problems often may seem trivial to us, but to our kids their daily concerns are top priority. When we share our kids’ priorities, we show our kids how important they are to us, and we feel better about ourselves as parents. Congratulations to Dr. Rothbart for his beautiful essay and for his wonderful parenting.