Who would have thought that insisting on the benefit of playing sports would be so controversial? To those who joined the discussion, thanks for your comments. I hope we can discuss other parenting topics in the coming months. Here’s how I net out this topic (sports): First, every family is different and let’s presume we are all trying to make prudent, wise decisions for our children’s good.
Second, as parents, we need to have a plan—some principles, concrete objectives, and actual follow-through—if we are going to succeed in raising children of strong character. We need more than the “plant theory” of child-raising (feed ‘em, water ’em, make sure they get plenty of sunshine, and just watch them grow).
I’ll unpack general principles of good character formation another time, but the relevant point here is this: our kids need to engage in sustained, challenging, physical activity on a regular basis. (That’s a more general definition of “sports,” but “sports” is my shorthand.) In the U.S., “sports” typically means organized team sports or individual sports, but certainly could be pursued otherwise (as Darcy’s comment shows—she’s got a basketball team of boys under her own roof). If your kids are not doing sports, what are they doing to stay fit and to challenge themselves physically, nearly every day? What realistic plan do you pursue to make that happen?
My experience is that most kids who are not doing sports actually do nothing physical—or at least nothing that’s physically challenging on a regular basis. And that will indeed make them “soft.” It does them a disservice for life.
Why do they need to do sports? Because, as I argue in my original piece, we are physical beings. We are made to move and to be strong—and failing to care for ourselves physically makes us less balanced as a person. It’s like trying to craft a stable chair with one leg made of spaghetti. Most importantly, physical challenges—like sports—test the character in a way that sedentary pursuits or passive sacrifices (however real) do not. Like it or not, our life will entail physical—bodily—sufferings and challenges. Those sufferings and difficulties easily can make us bitter, self-pitying, and resentful rather than holy. The simple fact is that when it comes to virtue, practice makes perfect (almost, anyway)—it just plain helps to have pushed oneself and persevered through physical challenges, with the right attitude. We become enabled, not disabled, by overcoming difficulty.
The character-building benefits of sports begin with physical testing and pushing our limits, but they extend beyond that to so many other important aspects. There’s neither time nor space to list them all, but I’ll throw out a few examples: When a 13-year-old playing basketball gets elbowed or fouled on purpose—and it hurts—but the ref doesn’t call it, he learns to control his temper, to resist provocation, to focus on the game, and be a good sport—no matter how much it hurts. When a runner trains and trains for the CYO track meet, only to sprain an ankle the week before the race, she learns to overcome disappointment, to show up and generously cheer for teammates, and to persevere through the arduous work of getting back in shape all over again, after the injury is healed, but with no trophy or prize to show for her effort. And when an eight-year-old who is gifted athletically wants to hog the ball and score ten goals–just because he can–he learns to pass, to give others the chance to score, to teach and encourage others less-skilled, to be modest instead of boastful, and to avoid criticizing the mistakes of others.
For the un-athletic child, participating in sports might be even more important. Perhaps that child’s inclination is to avoid physically difficult tasks, or to avoid the social embarrassment of being “the worst.” To me, it’s better to help the child learn, instilling competency, confidence, and determination to do her best rather than quit. At the same time, it’s up to parents to find a sport which is do-able, fits the child’s temperament, and that provides opportunity for skill development rather than failure. (For example, kids who don’t enjoy head-to-head competition sometimes thrive in a sport like tae kwan do; it emphasizes personal mastery, progression according to specific skills, and mixed-age classes so there’s no worry about lagging behind age-mates.) The specific goal for a child who dislikes sports (fitness, social confidence) will be different from the one who excels in them (scholarships, excellence). But for both children, important character training takes place in the pursuit of those goals. If we are motivated to find the options, and believe in their value, there’s a sports-fit for nearly everyone.
A final observation…I spent over a year caring for my mother-in-law during her final illness and spent many hours with other sick, elderly, and dying people. Old age, illness, and dying are not easy. When we’re in the throes of suffering, it’s too late to prepare. We just have to deal. And those who are “soft” ultimately suffer more, because they are unprepared to face physical hardship. That’s true not just at the end of life, but at every stage. Who wants that for their kids? We can do better.
Enough said. It’s a beautiful day and I’m heading outside…to soccer.(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson See more blogs at Phases of Womanhood