Kids and sports -- if you're a parent you know that it's just a matter of time before you address the topic. It doesn't matter if your child is a boy or a girl, the question hovers over their heads nonetheless. Will they play sports? What sports do they like? Will they excel?
Now, you may have noticed that I didn't ask the question, "What if they don't want to play sports," because, for the most part, it doesn't really matter. Whether your child is the next Super Bowl star of more of the bookish type, the penchant for folks to ask "what sport will he/she be taking" won't diminish. It seems that the millennium has brought on the expectation that parents will automatically enrol their kids into their (the parents') sport of choice -- or else.
Once the domain of hockey parents and soccer moms alone, being a "sports parent" has extended beyond a specific few. Now, we expect children to be enrolled, engaged and excited about the opportunity to participate in our society's sports culture. Having a junior athlete is de rigueur amongst the parenting crowd these days.
Yet, like any cross-section of any large populous, children are no different. Children range in not only personality types but interests as well. And still it happens that sports as a pursuit is expected, regardless of a child's personal wishes.
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So what does this presupposition do to our kids, one has to wonder? For the children who have a propensity to kick that ball with vigour, for those would-be Beckhams, it's a win-win situation. The parents get to live out any vicarious fantasies that they may have, stemming from youthful sporting pursuits yet unrealized; the child gets to bask in the glory of the thrill of victory as well the gleam in their parents' eyes. The darker side to this reality, however, is the ongoing feelings of anxiety, stress and inadequacy felt by those children who may not have the desire or ability to become the next Olympic gold medal winner. For these children, just the mere spectre of competition within the athletic realm is enough to make them quake in their boots. This because all children are not created equal, despite all of us being told otherwise.
No, all children are not equal. Some of them are natural athletes, excelling at any given team or individual sport with ease. Some may have the artistic aplomb to become the next Picasso or Rembrandt, if given the nurturing, love and support required to succeed. It is these children of whom we should be particularly interested -- and concerned. Because as many children that there are realizing their dreams of achieving a magnificent touchdown and leading their team to victory, there are just as many kids as equally talented, but not within the sphere of sports. It is this group of children that need to be remembered, before they are signed up for an activity that has the ability to leave them quaking in their newly-purchased Nike running shoes.
For these are the children that bear the brunt of our desires, who are catapulted into a world that they dread to appease our own vicarious longings. It is this group of unfortunate young ones that have to walk the walk -- or run the track -- in order to satisfy their parents' expectations. Is this fair?
Ask any dad sitting in the stands at a hockey game why he's there. Ask any mother shouting encouragement to their daughter from the sidelines at the soccer game why she's there. Ask both of them whether or not they've gone into debt just to finance their dreams of fame and fortune for their child. The answer to the last question may be yes or no, however I guarantee that the answer to the first two will be the same: Because they want their child to learn about teamwork, excel at an activity and perhaps have fun in the process. That's right -- they want their child to do all of these things. It's often not the child's choice.
Stage parents and hockey parents: are there really any differences between the two? We loathe the stereotype of the pushy, self-serving "stage mom" yet we seem to have no problem at all with the parent who pushes their child to excel at sports at any cost. Why? Are we so enamoured, so inculcated with the idea of sports that we've lost our collective abilities to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Our culture reveres sports stars, elevating them to the status of heroes, often just because they've exhibited athletic prowess. While this feat may indeed be notable, is it really that important in the larger scheme of things? What does it say about us as a society when we pay athletes millions of dollars per year to hit or kick a ball around, yet charities continue to flounder due to lack of funds and support?
We tell our children to follow their dreams, that we will support them in anything they do and that they can be anything they want to be. Yet so many of us impose strict parameters on their extra-curricular activities if they don't involve sports. You see, art classes and piano lessons are all well and good, but don't even think about dropping out of Little League. No, that would be too traumatic for mom or dad.
And in these instances, the message that we're sending to our children is loud and clear: we want you to excel at sports, so you'd better do it. We want to see you become an athletic star, regardless of your interest (and often skill level). We want to finally realize that long-standing dream of hearing the roar of the crowds, experiencing the adoration of the fans and seeing the dollars on the bank statement, even if we didn't earn it. If it's for our kids, that's close enough, right?
"Do as I say, not as I do" is the message that we're teaching our children. This is a direct contradiction of the other messages that we tell them, that they can be anything that they want to be and that they should follow their dreams. Is this fair?
As much as we strive to be the loving and supportive mother and father that we would like to be, our more egotistical and narcissistic need for adulation too often supersedes any semblance of reason -- or fairness, for that matter.
Until we let go of our collective dreams of athletic super-stardom, of touchdowns and home runs, we will continue to negatively affect our children's psyches, despite our desire to do otherwise. So next time little Connor asks to take art lessons, hold your tongue, smile and run out and buy him a paint brush. You'll be glad that you did.