And there are those niggling questions in the back of our minds, too. Are organized sports for children a necessary evil? Is competition healthy, or does it produce more problems than it's worth? Is my child ready for this?
Our son Jason was enthralled with all-things-sports at a very early age. He heard people talk about the Cincinnati Reds (when we lived near Ohio,) and got to attend a couple games with his Dad and other young boys at church. From the roar of the crowd to the hot dogs and popcorn, it was father-son bonding at its best.
Jason also saved his hard-earned allowance to collect and trade baseball cards. He listened to games on the radio and knew the players by names and positions they played. He could tell you how many hits or strikeouts they had in a game -- and who ended up being MVP. I couldn't complain too much, because it was Jason's desire to read the stats on the back of each card actually improved his reading skills. Yes!
After we moved to Alabama, my hubby and our son went to see the Atlanta Braves in action. Back then, I tried to remember all their names, the positions they played, their manager's name and temperament, etc. I wanted our son to know I really did care about his interests and it was a fun way to connect with our quiet son. His eyes would light up while telling me the latest sports news, and I treasure those memories.
It was common practice for Jason to gather up all the neighbor boys and bring them to our yard for after-school practice. When fresh cookies came out of my oven, they'd drop their mitts and come running. Our kitchen was full of energetic boys babbling baseball stats and giving one another high-fives on their accomplishments in the front yard. After the cookies were gone, they'd thank me and dash back out to continue their game.
When our son asked about playing on a local league, we looked into it. Turns out the L.A. Dodgers were looking for new players. (L.A. as in Leighton, Alabama, that is.) During orientation, we met and talked with the coach and got to know the other parents. Uniforms were ordered and the waiting game began. When his came in, I remember how our son eye's lit up the first time he tried it on. I also noticed the way his confidence increased. He was part of a team!
A few years later, basketball was the game of choice -- perhaps because his legs were long and his hands were huge and he was good at rebounds. Whatever the reason, he practiced at our goal for hours on end. I loved looking out the kitchen window to see him dash about the yard and give a play-by-play report. At the recreation center in town, he was a team player all the way...shouting encouragement, patting his teammates' backs, commending good plays.
So how do parents make a decision about competitive sports for their children? It would be easier to stick your head in a corner and not deal with it, right? But you want to be sure ... you want to know if it's the right thing for your child, your family, and your schedule.
In looking back on our experience, allow me to share my heart ...
First, you pray about it while considering your child's level of interest. You also weigh your ability to keep up with the schedule and remember there must be time for school work, chores and family time. You also discuss the importance of seeing something through and not being a quitter.
But what about the other kids, the coach you barely know and those parents who might not be the best influence on your child? That's a tough question ... but in the long run, you have to remember this simple statement -- there is no set rule written in black and white about competitive sports teams and your children. So you weigh the options and try your best not to make it a bigger deal than it is.
Our children are going to face difficulties in life and run into some tough things along the way. They are going to learn what it's like to excel and to fail, on or off the field or court. At what age do they learn those things best?
Our children must learn what it means to get along with others outside the family and be a good sport when things don't go their way. They must learn to be fair and honest and encourage fellow team-mate (or fellow employees) as they go through life. When and where they learn these lessons, however, lies in your hands as the parents.
It's entirely possible to learn the basics of these lessons in your own home and shield your child from involvement in outside venues, but it doesn't give them the experience. Outside the home, in less-than-idea settings, you are tested. You quickly learn that not everyone abides by the same rules. Not everyone is honest or fair of kind, and while that's a tough lesson, it's an important one.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that a child's personality and natural gifts also play into the equation.
He also liked drawing detailed diagrams of inventions he dreamed up. Kevin enjoyed reading instruction manuals and game rules. He built detailed scenes and contraptions with LEGO toys. No surprise, then, that Kevin is now a highly-trained computer technician who trains others.
Jason, on the other hand, was just the opposite. He thrived on teamwork, group activities and collected G.I. Joe stuff. He liked wearing uniforms and belonging to a collective group that worked like a fine-tuned machine. Today he is part of an elite security team that protects your freedoms.
So study your children. Know what makes them tick. Pray about everything, including sports. Just as you allowed your children to try their skills at walking and encouraged them when they had boo-boos, so you can and should be their support system in science fairs, speech contests and (perhaps), sports.
Yes, there are other ways to expose children to others, including their peers, coaches and other parents, and you can pray about that, too. If, however, you join a sports team in the community, your child can be a good example of sportsmanship. You, on the bleachers, can be a friend to other parents and invite them to church.
I think we made the mistake, all too often, of trying to expose our children only to like-minded families and their children. In some ways, this stunted their ability to adapt to people of different beliefs and make tough decisions on their own when we weren't around.
Maybe it is better to join a group of others on the ball field or in a gymnasium while you are conspicuously present. This is not overprotecting young children -- this is letting them know you are supportive. From the sidelines, you can observe what goes on. You can encourage your child with a nod, a smile or a wink. Later, on the way home, you are available to listen or to answer questions and discuss how things went.
We can't hide from everything that's out there. We can't shine light where it isn't dark. We can't always protect our children. As a parent, you must decide when your child is ready to go 'on stage" in life while you watch from the curtains. Close, but not hovering ... trusting the Lord, but never abandoning your child.
Pray about it. Consider each of your children individually. Each is uniquely designed and is at this moment being developed for a "life calling." That's an awesome thought! So however you encourage your child in life and whether you participate in organized sports or not, do whatever you do with faith ... and do it with all your heart.