Monday, March 24, 2014

What our children need from us ...

Ah, it's the time of year when the kids suit up and the parents sit on the sidelines or bleachers. Play ball!  There's a lot of excitement, commitment and even sacrifices involved when you let your children pursue their dreams.

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 that 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 my son's interests, and it was a fun way to connect with a son who was usually pretty quiet.  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.  We 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, 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.   

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-mates (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-ideal 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.

Our second son, Kevin, was perfectly at ease without a lot of companionship.  He was quite a loner, at times, with his books, toys and games.  Team interaction, organized sports and competition were not his thing ... but he did love tinkering with things, taking them apart and putting them back together.  He was a real whiz with machines and taught me how to check the oil in our riding lawn mower when he was only five.

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 and helps customers all across the U.S. and beyond.

Jason, on the other hand, was just the opposite.  He thrived on teamwork, group activities and liked to collect G.I. Joe stuff.  He liked wearing uniforms and belonging to a collective group that worked like a fine-tuned machine. When America was attacked on September 11, 2001, Jason joined the U.S. Marine Corps to defend our country.  After his tour of duty was up and he'd served some time in Iraq, Jason made it home safely, thank God.  He continues to work stateside with our safety and freedom in mind.

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.  
While our daughter Melissa was not into sports or tinkering with mechanical things, she was creative and very interested in art and music.  At eight years old, she took her first piano lessons and prepared her first recital.  Music was a way she could enjoy expressing her heart, and she wanted to continue, so we did.  After high school, she earned her B.A. in music.

At the encouragement of her professors, she went on to get her Master of Music degree -- and that's where she and her husband-to-be met one another.  Her studies have prepared her well to teach an occasional college music course at the community college where they live, and she continues to give private piano lessons in their home.  God does all things well!

Your story and your children are different than ours, but we have some things in common -- we can't protect our children from every difficult circumstance out there. We can't shine our light for Christ where it isn't dark.  We can't always direct our children in every detail.  Some day, our children will eventually "go on stage" in life to use their gifts and talents and training.  That's when we step back to watch from the curtains.  Close, but not hovering ... always praying, encouraging with a smile, trusting the Lord.   

Always thanking God for making them who they are with their own particular interests and gifts. That's one important thing our children need from us.

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