Elite Youth Sports…and the Parenting Trap

little league batter

I’ll admit, I am not an expert on youth sports, or sports of any kind. But I have two kids who will need me to make choices about the activities they are involved in, and I therefore found the following article sad and fascinating. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, the basic idea is that parents are being convinced (often by for-profit sports organizations) to push their children into so-called elite sports at younger and younger ages, whether or not it is good for the child or the game.

I’d like to say that I would never fall into the trap of believing that elite youth sports are necessary for my child, but even with children who are still very young, I can see myself occasionally slipping into it. Maybe not the trap of elite youth sports, but certainly the trap of believing that I owe it to my kids to give them the best — and believing what others tell me about what the best is. From buying the most “educational” toys, to paying for the best junior music lessons or pre-schools, to “elite” sports camps, if I don’t shell out money for my child’s benefit, it is easy to make me feel like a selfish parental failure.

What makes parents susceptible to this Parenting Trap?

For starters, I have not led a perfect life. I have regrets. And what parent doesn’t want to fix their own regrets in their child’s life? I sure do. In a blog on a similar topic, youth culture expert Walt Mueller points out:

“Unfortunately, some parents see their kids as a second chance to fulfill dreams they themselves never realized.”

It is only a force of will that allows me to take my eyes off my self to see my child for who he really is and to ask myself, “Okay, since he isn’t me, who is this little bundle of hopes and dreams and what is it that will really help him flourish?” I might wish that someone had pushed me a little harder to stay in dance lessons when I was little, but that doesn’t mean that my child needs me to force him to stay with an activity he hates.

How can we get beyond the reach of the parenting trap?

Well, for starters, I know I need to come to terms with my regrets so they have no more power over my decisions. Maybe I gave up dance too soon, but there were a lot of things that I did instead of dance that I loved — would I give those up? No. More importantly, however, I need to remember that it is never too late for a parent to pursue their own dreams. If I want to dance, I can still learn to dance.

In fact, maybe my child will benefit more from watching me pursue my own dreams than he would if I push him to pursue my dreams for him.

My mother delayed getting a PhD when my sister and I were born. Did she turn her regrets into pressure for my sister and I to pursue graduate education instead of having families? No. She raised us, and then picked up where she left off, ultimately receiving her PhD a few years ago. Her example has given me more motivation than I ever would have received had she pushed me into a graduate degree.

So maybe instead of allowing guilt to push me into pushing my kids, I can worry a little less about giving my children an easy path to their dreams, and a little more about setting an example that it is never too late to work for our own dreams.

Telling Your Family’s Story

My parents, circa a long time ago.
My parents. We won’t talk about how much I might look like my mom.

A few months ago, my husband and I said good-bye to the last of our grandparents, my husband’s Grandma. For the last decade or more, every 4th of July, her children and their families would gather at a lake house — a group that grew by one or two (or five) each year. She lived to see 25 great-grandchildren born! Today, if you want to know what our family is about, you only have to stop by that lake house this July 4. I expect all of the traditions will continue, from shooting off our own fireworks, to building some new addition to the house, to taking the requisite family photo — more difficult as the family grows each year. The family is competitive, stubborn in its generosity, efficient as only engineers know efficiency, and completely devoted to each other.

As those 25 great-grandchildren age, their family identity will keep them grounded. Research backs this up. Family stories and a child’s ability to see herself as part of a bigger picture play an important role in helping children navigate challenges and stress. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“[Researchers] developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

“Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

“Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families…. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

So how do you create a strong family identity? I offer some suggestions below, and then next week, we’ll continue the discussion by looking specifically at grandparents.

  • Family artifacts. Share stories about items that belonged to other family members or which have been passed down through generations. They don’t have to be valuable! My husband keeps a few of his Poppy’s books (some of which still have Poppy’s old business cards tucked in as bookmarks). I have a pair of my Grandma’s shoes — the ones she got in Germany as a refugee during WWII. When we visit my parents’ house, we use a tablecloth made by my Grandma and her sisters, and hear again how incredible it is that they crocheted the whole thing by hand.
  • Make and keep traditions. If you don’t have any traditions yet, it is never too late to start. You could look through old photos to get ideas of activities you want to repeat — family memories you may have already forgotten but want to rekindle. Or, decide as a family what would be really special to do, and to keep doing. My friend’s family picks up take-out Chinese for dinner every Christmas eve. Why? No one knows. But it has become tradition.
  • Share photos. This can mean looking at albums together, but it can also be an opportunity to leverage social media. Throwback Thursday is an internet tradition of posting pictures from way back when — why not start including some from WAY back. Scan family photos using one of these methods or at a local convenience store with photo services. Then they are ready to share — and you may be surprised at what your kids are willing to post on their social media. Grandpa bowling with a handlebar moustache? Awesome!
  • Family Core Values. Like a business, sit down together and identify what your family’s core values are. Let everyone contribute. Write them down. If you have younger children, write down values on popsicle sticks and use them to build a house together. Repeat these to each other. “Remember guys, we’re the Smiths. And Smiths stick together.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to explore the topic of family stories and how they can help us be better parents. In the comments section, share a way that you keep family traditions!


Help Your Anxious Teen

I can vividly remember the day I had a terrible stomachache at school…and an upcoming test.  I was in so much pain, I called my mom to come take me home.  The moment I got in the car, the stomach pain started to go away, and was gone in minutes.  I felt guilty…but I really HAD been sick.  No doubt, it was anxiety that tied my stomach in knots.  On occasion, I can still can be prone to these kinds of physical manifestations of emotional distress.

Sometimes teens express that they are anxious and worried, and sometimes they don’t recognize the signs.  I found a great article that walks parents through how to talk to their teens about anxiety, including another page on how to recognize the signs and help your child deal with it.