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Get Real by Abby Arnold

An occasional series of unflinching commentary

October 2006

Sporting an attitude

Ah, the joys of kids playing sports.

The satisfying thwack of bat meeting ball, the screams of enthusiastic laughter as children run up and down a field chasing the soccer ball, the smell of a newly mown lawn and the satisfaction of a sweaty child plopping down happily in my lap when the game is over.

And, of course, the thrill of watching my five year old son continually pick his nose as he waits in outfield while a team of twelve other young t-ballers take their endless turns at bat.

Maybe I should be grateful that, unlike his two other friends on his team, he isn't doing a very suggestive bump and grind between second and third base. He's not -- at least not now -- the boy who keeps wandering away from first base in order to jump into a pile of leaves. He's not lying on the grass, picking out animal shapes in the clouds. He's not -- again, not now -- the one crying because the only two kids on the team who are actually able to chase and catch the ball have done so again, leaving him in the dust.

I'm certainly happy that I'm not the mom on the cell phone, stopping her endless conversation only to yell at her five year old to chase the ball. Instead, I look at my son, finger digging away into his nose and think, "Oh why not, I'm bored too."

Call me crazy, but after doing my duty as a middle-class American by trying both soccer and T-ball, I now think that little kids are just too little to play organized sports. Sure, there is the occasional child who is very, very good at sports. This child probably has a parent who regularly practices with her in the backyard. This child understands the rules and has developed advanced coordination. This child has fun playing soccer, t-ball, basketball. This child looks forward to sports days for the sport.

My son and his friends look forward to sports days for the snacks.

My son has a mother whose secret adult fear is that I'll get a job where they want me to play on the softball team, and a father who loves to do puzzles and build birdhouses with his children but barely recognized a football from a basketball when a concerned friend sent them to our son when he was two years old.

My son is genetically destined to be a nerd.

This doesn't mean I think sports are bad for kids -- on the contrary, like most people I think sports are great for children. Teamwork, exercise, learning new skills, fun: I'm for all of those things -- for older children, kids who have the ability to be still, to concentrate, to connect with others as a team. I just don't think little kids have it in them. What little kids want is fun -- loud, chaotic fun. And they know what fun is much better than their parents do.

I don't think many parents have what it takes to be the parent of a young child on a team, particularly the enjoying-a-game-for-fun part. Certainly not the parents I know. There are the extreme examples: The mother at the three-year old soccer team who screamed at her son when he scored a goal for the other side. "You're going the wrong way," she kept yelling, then stopped and looked around at the other parents. "Should I care?" she asked. She honestly didn't know if it mattered where and how her three year old son made a goal.

Or the T-ball parents who demanded that the kids be taught to hit without the Tee. Never mind that the YMCA specifically said this was a T-ball league. Never mind that the vast majority of the kids could not hit a pitch, but all seemed to enjoy hitting the ball up on the tee. These parents wanted their kids to learn it "right" and the coaches, volunteer parents themselves, gave in.

But even my parent-friends who said they were in it for their kids' fun, they often got grumbly and exasperated when their children fooled around. They felt diminished when their child couldn't throw the ball very far, and more excited than the child himself when he caught it.

Me too, of course. I also felt the pressure of wanting my son to "get" sports. I made excuses for Jack's nose-picking, apologized for the way he paid more attention to dandelion pods blowing past him one way than running after the ball going the opposite direction. Winced when the ball once again rolled through his legs. As if this was a fault, as if his inability to concentrate on a game was some kind of deficiency. As if it mattered that at three, at five, he wasn't good at sports. Then, equally absurd, I felt vindicated and longed to gloat when it turned out that even though he can't catch he can hit the ball pretty far when it's on the tee.

There's something about sports that makes even a non-sports adult like me get judgmental, competitive, and a bit insane.

So I've decided to take us both out of this craziness. When he gets a bit older, if he wants to join up he can. When he gets old enough to decide for himself. The same goes for my daughter. Sports when they are ready, not when I think they should be.

Maybe when that day happens I'll be mature enough to watch them play.

: mmo :

Get Real is an ongoing series of original essays and commentary by Abby Arnold. She is a teacher, writer and the mother of a 5 year old son and 3 year old daughter. She lives with her family in North Carolina.

Feel like getting real? Send your comments to Abby Arnold at getreal@mothersmovement.org

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