Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ramblings from my attic #104

Stop, look, listen
I love my kids. I showed my love to my eldest from age 5 to age 12 by putting thousands of miles on our cars driving her to soccer practices, soccer training, soccer games, soccer tournaments, with forays into softball and basketball overlapping the soccer. After seven intense years, she has quit soccer, taken up basketball in a much more low key way, and begun smiling and joking around again.

You may do the like for your children, be it dance, swimming, gymnastics, baseball. Or you may have chosen to avoid the madness but wondered if you were being selfish. The road to youth sports madness is insidious and paved with good intentions. I eventually want to create a checklist that parents of young kids can use to continually re-access who is benefiting from a family’s sports involvement or over-involvement, and who is suffering from it. Youth sports are fabulous for exercise, team work, bond building, self esteem building, you name it. Yet I am afraid that now youth sports are robbing kids of both their youth and time for free play. The intensity of their competitive schedules is also fracturing family life. Parents are ceding the parenting of young children to coaches who may not have their children’s best interests in mind. A Division One winning season may be critical for a coach’s ego but hazardous to a 10 or 11 year olds physical and mental health.

I have seen parents close-up who live and die by their children’s success and failure in organized sports and I have witnessed through their journaling a set of parents who have struggled to keep a terminally sick child alive and a family intact for two years, only to watch their eight-year old son die of leukemia three weeks before Christmas. How do you deal with the loss of a child? I can’t answer that one. Cameron was a treasure to those who knew him. The journal his parents kept on
www.supportcameron.com will break your heart. There is no fairness or explanation for the suffering and death of an innocent. There is no understanding of how parents can survive the aftermath. But as a friend and I agreed, stories like Cameron’s remind you what is real; what is important.

I don’t mean to marginalize Cameron’s story by weaving it into an essay on youth sports. But his family’s tragedy lives in my consciousness next to my supposition that some parents may, subconsciously, view their children as a long term investment to maximize for scholarship potential. If they have a talent, then every opportunity must be given to them to develop it and become the best. Our kids are not commodities to hone and refine. And I don’t think that it is necessarily our job to push them to find and hone their talents at an early age. Our encouragement to take lessons, try out for a better team, study with the best teachers or coaches puts our children in the position of having to just go along to please us or rebel against our pressure and face our disappointment and anger.


Clearly, it’s not just in sports that our over-enthusiasm can push kids away from something they love. I work at the McLean Project for the Arts, and the exhibitions director, Nancy Sausser has told me of her innate love of sculpture, how her parents were supportive, but that meant that they didn’t get her in way when she proceeded to turn a basement space into her own hard scrapple studio. Her goal was to create; not to be the best, not to seek out the best teacher. That all came in time and was driven by Nancy’s own inner passion and determination.

She told me of an artist friend whose son showed early artistic talent. The friend made sure the son had the best training available, went to the best art camps, only to be hurt and mortified when in his late teens he walked away from it all in disgust and exhaustion.

Last summer I had a long phone chat with Marymount Women’s Basketball Coach Bill Finney about the over-reach of sports in kids’ lives. He expressed disgust that he received calls for his players to “tutor” kids still in elementary school to give them a leg-up in basketball competition. Undoubtedly he has a financial interest in promoting kids involvement in basketball as he runs a series of popular youth basketball camps. But he bemoaned to me the amount of structure kids must have now. He loves basketball, he says. He loves it because he played pick-up basketball until he was tired, then walked home. He was allowed to play it, love it, on his own terms.

We don’t let our kids stop when they’re tired anymore. They play on a schedule, in increasing competition. Kids need sports, but the burn-out and competition is pushing many kids away from organized sports before they even get to high school, right at the age that parents count on sports distracting their teenagers from more troublesome pursuits and peers.