Monday, June 9, 2014

In Defense of Travel Sports and Helicopter Parenting

This past weekend was the draft for Major League Baseball. Seven kids whom my son played with throughout the years (and many others whom he played against) heard their names called. Sadly, my son was not among them.

My book, KEEPING SCORE, is about a “helicopter mom” whose nine-year-old son asks to play travel baseball. It’s the story of that summer, and all the trials and tribulations that went along with it – the politics, the petty competitiveness among the parents, and the particular agony it is to watch your child try his hardest – and fail.

“Helicopter parenting” has always been a pejorative term, and even more so over the past few years. We parents of early 1990s babies were encouraged to sleep with them, breastfeed on demand, wear them, play with them on the floor, and pick them up every time they cried. When they hit school age, we were told to sit with them while they did their homework, schedule them for multiple afterschool activities, and give them trophies for just participating. (Aside: I don’t really have a problem with the trophy thing. It only happens at the lowest level of sports – “rec” – and it may encourage kids who are bad at sports to stick with them. Sports provide exercise even to uncoordinated children and if they stick with them, they might get better. It sucks to be the worst kid on your team. Give them a trophy and maybe they’ll sign up again.)

After doing all that, we were told we created a generation of helpless, fragile butterflies who needed their parents to call their college professors and even their bosses when things got a little rough. And the worst kind of helicopter parents were those who forced their children into all those extra-curricular activities that they didn’t want to be doing. We were creating overscheduled, stressed-out kids who would much rather be playing kick ball with their friends in the neighborhood than travel baseball all over the country.

That last argument, by the way, has been proven wrong. Take a look at this study that shows that kids involved in a lot of activities are happy and healthy – it’s their parents who are stressed – and that kids who aren’t doing anything are withdrawn and depressed.

Score one for helicopter parents.

Now, about the fragile butterfly thing, and how that relates to sports. In KEEPING SCORE, nine-year-old Sam has to get on the mound and pitch right after he struck out in the most humiliating fashion. All through the season, he has ups and downs that on the best days have him crowing, and on the worst days begging to quit. His mother, Shannon, constantly questions whether she should be pushing him, or whether she should just let him quit.

That was just a single summer. Sam, like my son Alex, will go on to have years of ups and downs. That’s what playing sports does – especially at the most competitive levels. It forces you to get back up after having the lowest down. It creates resilience, and there’s nothing more important for success in this ultra-competitive world we’ve created than resiliency.

So while we travel-ball parents are criticized for trying to live out our dreams through our children, for being too obsessed and worried about things we can’t control (and I agree that parents of children who do not want to be playing sports at this level should not be pushing them), -- and through my book, I am one of the critics – I would also like to point out that we are developing children who can withstand failure and get back in the game. When you have a child who can give up a home run, and then hit one himself, you have a child who is developing the mental strength to deal with all of life’s curveballs.

So, no, my son did not get drafted. But he was genuinely pleased for his teammate who did. The day after the draft ended, he threw a perfect inning and came home to talk to the college coaches that are interested in having him play. This is just a temporary set-back – one that years of playing competitive sports has equipped him to handle.

Long live the helicopter parent.

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