Something happened at Annie’s gymnastics class last week that had her near tears as we left, and I didn’t know what to think about it for a good stretch until I finally was able to wrap my head around what happened.

If you’re thinking, “Gymnastics class? I haven’t heard about those in a while,” it’s because we decided not to sign Annie up for the summer session so she could focus on learning how to swim. Now that the summer is over, we enrolled Annie in a new gymnastics class for kids three and a half to four and a half. This class is the step-up from her last one, which was for kids two and a half to three and half.

before gymnastics
All smiles before class.

Annie was excited to be back in gymnastics, and pretty much picked up right where she left off once class began. There were a few moments, though, when she and some of the other girls didn’t follow directions nearly as well as they should.

When the class finished Annie was the first one into the waiting room, but instead of being happy (her usual post-gymnastics mood), she was distressed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“She didn’t give me a stamp.”

Stamps, you see, are a big thing at gymnastics. Annie’s previous class always ended with the instructor giving each kid a stamp on the hand, and they always acted like they’d been handed a briefcase with a million dollars in it.

“Go back in and tell her you didn’t get a stamp,” Heather suggested. We both assumed that since Annie was the first one into the waiting room the instructor had simply missed her.

Annie nodded and went back into the gym as another girl entered, crying. Heather and I exchanged a glance as Annie returned looking even more distressed.

“She said ‘I told you no stamp,’” Annie said.

Just then another girl skipped into the waiting room, beaming.

“Look, Mom!” she said. “I got a stamp because I was a good listener!”

It suddenly became clear that the instructor was using the stamps as an incentive for the girls to behave in class. The good listeners got stamps; the others didn’t.

Heather and I quickly put Annie’s shoes on and hurried her to the car because we didn’t want her throwing a fit over the stamp. She didn’t do that, though. She just seemed sad and hurt.

As we drove away anger surged inside of me. These are just little girls, I thought, and they’re used to getting stamps! Why not just give them the stupid stamp? Who does this instructor think she is?

Heather, on the other hand, was on-board with the instructor.

“Annie wasn’t being a good listener,” she said in that hushed voice parents use when they don’t want their kids to hear them. “She needs to see that’s not going to be rewarded.”

“I know,” I replied as we drove off. “But they always get stamps -”

“The younger class always got stamps. She’s in the next level up now.”

I didn’t respond because everything Heather said made sense. Annie hadn’t listened and that behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. I just hated to see her sad.

When we stopped at a red light Heather turned around to face Annie.

“Were you a good listener in class today?”

Annie shook her head.

“Are you supposed be a good listener?”

Annie nodded.

“You understand why you didn’t get a stamp then?”

“Because I wasn’t a good listener.”

“That’ right. Be a good listener next week and you’ll get a stamp, okay?”

“Okay, Mama.”

I watched Annie in the rear view mirror as the light changed, and I could see on her face that in that moment she was learning a lesson. Her expression was repentant, and it was clear she understood why she didn’t receive a stamp.

The good news is that very quickly Annie was laughing and no longer concerned about the business with the stamp. Annie learned her lesson, and I guess I did, too: what’s best for your kids isn’t always what makes them happiest. That’s a tough one for a parent to accept, but it’s true.