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.

Boys Deal With Body Image Issues Too

Most of what we read about body image issues focuses on girls who are trying to be model thin, or are obsessed with showing off their…curves.  But boys are not immune to our culture’s unhealthy focus on appearance.   A new study discussed in an online article by ANI News shows that boys who are of a healthy weight, but think they are too heavy or too thin, are more likely to be depressed.  Those who think they are “very underweight,” are the most depressed.  Boys who do not exhibit the bulging muscles of their peers, or of media celebrities, and experience bullying, are also more likely to use steroids, according to the article.  Giving our boys a healthy sense of self, whether they are muscular and toned, or of a leaner or huskier build, is as important as making sure girls know they don’t have to look like an airbrushed sunken-cheeked model.

Why Teens are So Self-Centered

Well, that explains it!  Recent research has determined that when our son or daughter exhibits a breathtaking lack of compassion and understanding, it’s because of a deficiency in the ability to experience empathy.  Empathy refers to the ability to share someone else’s feelings or perspective…to “step into his shoes.”  As in other areas, boys are a bit older when their ability to empathize increases–15 rather than 13 like girls–according to the research.  In a Huffington Post article, Psychologist Barbara Greenburg gives 5 tips on helping teens develop empathy.  Here are three:

  • Point out social cues.
  • Make your teens aware of how much impact their behavior may have on others.
  • Praise your teen when he or she exhibits empathetic behavior.

Boys and Eating Disorders

We’ve heard about boys turning to steroids to enhance their sports performance, or their muscular looks, but did you know that more boys use diet pills, powders or liquids than steroids?  The LA Times wrote about the increasing percentage of guys who now struggle with eating disorders, including in particular “purging” behavior like vomiting and using laxatives.  This seems to be an increasing problem in other areas as well, including Chicago, according to the article.  Why?  Experts point to the push in our society for men to attain to an athletic ideal…a lean, muscular body.

What might the signs of eating disorders in men be?  Here is a CBS video (from 2008 but just as relevant today) discussing what we know about men and eating disorders if you’d like to find out more.

Girls Aren’t the Only Ones Who Feel Pressure to Have Sex

One activity I do in classrooms reveals that teens THINK that guys always want the level of physical intimacy in a relationship to go “all the way.”  But I’ve also had boys reveal their real thoughts privately…and they’re much less cavalier in their attitudes about sex than everyone seems to think.  Indeed, I found a fascinating study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that talks about what boys think about sex and relationships.  I’ll be sharing findings in future blogs, but for starters, take a look at this advice from the report:  “Girls aren’t the only ones who feel pressure.  Reassure your son that he does not have to have sex. Nearly 8 out of 10 guys say there is way too much pressure on them to have sex—from society, from their friends, and from girls. More than half say they are relieved when a girl doesn’t want to have sex and 45% say they’ve had sex and regretted it afterwards. One in five (21%) say they have been pressured by a girl to go farther sexually than they wanted to. Boys can say ‘no’ too—even if they’ve said ‘yes’ before.”

Is There Still a Double Standard?

Not as much as there used to be, according to an American Sociological Association study of college students who were asked their opinions about peers who hook up “too much.”  They judged females and males about equally negatively.  So the “boys will be boys” excuse no longer holds sway with older teens and 20-somethings.

What about younger teens?  The responses my students in middle and high schools give when asked about the social standing of boys and girls who are known to be having sex (teens talk), appear at first to support the double standard.  For the most part, they agree that for a boy, at least in the eyes of the other guys, his social status goes up, while girls are called ugly names when they are known to have had sex.  What I help the guys see, however, is that while their “rep” as a player may get them high-fives from their buddies, the girls most definitely are disgusted by their behavior.

The ASA study shows that the hookup culture, while alive and thriving on college campuses, is being revealed as a negative trend, and at least by the time teens have observed or experienced “too much” promiscuity, they are left soured by the experience.  Let’s hope our sons and daughters are apt observers of their peers, and decide they don’t need to learn the hard way, but instead choose abstinence…and a good reputation.

Gaming. Is it Ruining Boys?

An interesting graphic (link here) reveals some startling statistics about boys and gaming, and connects the dots to conclude that gaming may be a contributor to a host of ills among boys, including lower grades, lower SAT scores, and higher dropout rates.  While it’s impossible to say that gaming is a cause of these things, it’s a legitimate concern.

Why the focus on boys?  For one thing, four times as many boys as girls exhibit signs of addiction to gaming. Fifty percent of boys (versus 14% of girls) admit to owning a “Mature” or “Adults Only” game.  In addition, a Stanford study indicates that boys’ brains are more wired to receive rewards from gaming.

Video-game-addiction.org has a wealth of information for teens and parents (and adult gaming addicts as well), including symptoms of addiction, a list of the most addictive games, and suggestions for treatment.

Home Alone…and Having Sex

When I get teens talking about situations to avoid, one of the ideas they come up with is “Don’t be home alone.”  Indeed, this is a WISE idea.   One study of urban teens showed that “Among the respondents who had had intercourse, 91% said that the last time had been in a home setting.”  More often it was at the boy’s house.   So teens on a Saturday night date making out in the back seat of the car may NOT be the most common impetus to sex.  Instead, it’s an overabundance of unsupervised time…after school…during the summer…when parents are at work.   “The likelihood of intercourse, the number of partners for intercourse, and substance use increased as the amount of unsupervised time increased.”

This is not surprising, of course.  But what the researchers pondered about this bears thinking about.  It might not JUST be a lack of opportunity that keeps some kids from having sex.  It could be that parents whose children have less unsupervised time consequently have more time relating to their parents and siblings.  They may be pursuing clubs, sports or other activities that give them a sense of purpose and self-esteem…and keep them occupied.  Two teens, with hormones, and too many hours with nothing fun to do might just be bored.  And that’s a recipe for a pregnancy or an STD.   If the summer is stretching on, help your teen keep out of trouble by helping him or her come up with some plans to do something fun and productive.

Talking About Sex: How Boys Handle the Conversation

For many teens, talking with their parents about sex is something they find awkward.  Interestingly, teens themselves sometimes find ways to “lighten up” conversations about sex.  Researchers observed that, compared to girls,  “Male adolescents used more sarcasm with their parent.  They made it seem as if it was acceptable to joke around with their parent about sex….downplaying the seriousness of it and putting their parent and themselves at ease.”  Interestingly, boys were more likely to use such sarcasm when talking to fathers.  Boys also appeared to be slightly more willing to talk about the topic with a parent than girls. 

So how do we make use of this information?  Keep in mind that a boy may relieve discomfort by using sometimes startling sarcasm:  “That rash I had last week was really a hickey, Mom.”  Knowing that he is probably trying to lighten things up, it would be wise to not react as if this is a disrespectful stance, but instead join in the “banter” with a similarly playful comment or just a laugh.

In the upcoming weeks, I will continue to share findings from this study on how teens and parents talk about sex.  The article is fairly “academic “in nature, but if you have the patience, and want to read some fascinating stuff, including real conversations teens had with their parents, click here for the whole article in the Journal of Adolescent Research.