Read Part 1.
In a previous essay, I delineated a number of the physical and spiritual benefits that may accrue to children who find healthy involvement in athletics. Young bodies need exercise and young souls can profit from the invaluable lessons athletic involvement provides through competitive interaction with other sinners.
I further stressed in the aforementioned article that parental decision making with respect to a child’s involvement in sports constitutes a crucible in which parents’ moral skill and loyalty to Christ are tested. If we do not proceed in the conscious fear of God when making such decisions, we stumble along life’s path as idolaters. So in the interest of athletic involvement that consciously strives to glorify God, I offer the following considerations for parents.
Preserve Family Time
Athletic involvement is a time-consuming investment. The physical rewards, the familial camaraderie generated by watching a child play, the inter-generational discussions athletic involvement is capable of spawning between engaged parents and children, and the lessons children learn in the throes of competition can all yield significant rewards. But we must also recognize that sports drain time away from families. There is a place on the chart of familial stewardship where the cost-to-benefit ratio of athletic involvement takes a decisive nosedive.
This problem has become particularly acute in our generation. When I was a kid (back when dinosaurs stalked the land!) the lion’s-share of athletic opportunities for pre-high school athletes were offered before supper time on weekday afternoons. Pre-high school athletes and their working parents typically returned home around the same time every weeknight. High school athletics rarely involved weekend games or evening practices. In stark contrast, it is not unusual in today’s suburban America for a 9-year-old to have two evening practices per week with a game (or two) every Saturday for 8-10 weeks. Such a schedule seems sadistically calibrated to siphon off meaningful family time, particularly for families who have two or more children involved in athletics.
Many families never notice. Broken relationships and changing work schedules are a reality of contemporary life for a growing number. These days, the very idea of a family spending weeknights and weekends at home together seems idyllic, if not a virtual fairy-tale. There is no virtue in pining for the good old days. It is paramount, however, that parents exercise conscious effort to preserve family time from the ravages of athletic urgency.
A common error in this regard is to start children in sports too early. I suggest two guidelines parents should consider before granting an anxious child the privilege to join a sports team. First, are the majority of teammates with whom your child will participate mature enough to engage in team play? If not, wait another year. Second, will postponing your child’s participation in this particular sport for another season place your child at an appreciable competitive disadvantage the following season? If not, wait another year.
To illustrate: I restricted my three boys from playing soccer until fifth grade. For the previous four-plus years, most of the other kids had been playing organized soccer, which for some of those years translates into running around in a hodge-podge of individualistic, clueless play and generally wasting everyone’s time (overstated, to be sure, but not by much). So when my boys entered their first year of organized soccer, most of their teammates were entering their fourth. Yet my guys fit right in, contributing most satisfactorily to their team’s success. In my way of thinking, I “stole” an extra three years of weeknights at the dinner table with each of my boys by resisting their pleas to start sports earlier. This decision, hard as it has been at times, cost them nothing athletically and gained them more than they could possibly understand at this point in their lives.
I’m not saying everyone should do it my way. Some will wisely strategize differently. Nor am I arguing that my guys could have done no better in their first season of play had they started playing organized ball earlier. It is also important to clarify that I taught them the basics of the game during those years I was resisting their desire to participate in organized sports.
What I am saying is that parents should generally sacrifice family time more begrudgingly. I am also saying that no parent should permit a child complete self-determination as to when he or she should start athletic involvement. I am saying: Think! If you deem it wise to watch your 5-year-old run around with other kids several hours a week while referees blow whistles at them, I leave that with you. But your children need you to make a rational, God-aware, family-conscious decision as to the appropriate age at which they will start participation in a sport. Just do it.
Prioritize God’s People
Another important matter of parental stewardship involves the inevitable conflict between church gatherings and athletic events. Such conflicts test the mettle of our resolve to honor God and nurture our children in holiness. Parents need to consider beforehand what message they will send their children when ball practice takes precedence over prayer meeting. What message do we send when worship is trumped by an athletic tournament? I do not mean to promote a simplistic equation for every such conflict. This is a matter parents must consider carefully before the Lord as they pursue a pure conscience. All I mean to say here is that such conflicts should be studiously avoided. This means that parents should strive to fully understand all pending conflicts before the start of a season so as to make an informed decision about how to handle or avoid scheduling conflicts.
To illustrate: The recreational league has one Sunday afternoon tournament at the end of the year. The traveling team for the same sport has six out-of-town weekend tournaments that season. Your child is athletically gifted and desperately wants to join the traveling team. What should you do? I would suggest you list on a piece of paper the specific motivations that would lead you to permit your child to join that traveling team (knowing as you do that it will mean he or she will miss six weeks of Sunday morning services that season). If you actually gave careful and honest attention to the formulation of that list, I’d happily leave the deciding to you.
Avoid Vicarious Living
Living vicariously through the athletic achievements of our children is a vice virtually every parent condemns and virtually every parent practices to one degree or another. As parents, we naturally love ourselves in our children and this is dangerous territory for the soul. Cheering my child and yearning for his or her success is a high-wire act that tiptoes between godly love and sinful self-love. We find it nauseating to observe parents who idolize their child’s success on the playing field (virtually as sickening as parents who could not care less what their child is doing). But we must recognize that such idolatry is nipping at the heels of all parents who love their children.
There is no easy answer here—only the life-long answer of conformity to the likeness of Christ through putting to death the deeds of the flesh. But as we renew our minds in the interest of that very goal, we must strive not to idolize our children or yearn above all else for their success. We must long first for our children to love God with all their hearts—a goal that often has nothing to do with conquest on the playing field. We must keep preaching to our heads that the goal of athletic involvement is for our children to pursue healthy stewardship of the body and to learn life lessons (i.e., the ability to win and lose with grace and humility, to handle disappointment and unfairness, to work as a sinner with sinful teammates, coaches, and referees, to curb selfishness and pride, etc). The goal is never to triumph over others, to gain fame, or to merely indulge our inner craving for the euphoric sensation of personal success—a self-serving lust that hides so neatly behind the mask of parental love.
Choose the Right Sport
I write here with less fervor on what can prove a touchy topic, but I suggest that when you consider a sport for your child that you look carefully at how your child will use his or her body in both games and practices. How does the body move in this sport? How much does it move? Is the punishment the body must take reasonable? A baseball catcher, a first baseman, a soccer goalie, or a football punter, to list a few examples, will have to find exercise opportunities beyond their chosen sport. A sprinter may run for no more than a few seconds per track meet, yet endures a grueling practice schedule throughout the week. Parents should carefully consider such variations and their implications.
To illustrate: I played centerfield for my freshman baseball team. I spent the vast majority of my time standing or sitting. First, because 8th and 9th graders do not hit many balls to center field; second, because I was a terrible batter and rarely had opportunity to run even to first base. Beyond mostly standing in the outfield, I spent a lot of time on the bench waiting for the eight other batters to get their time at the plate. I loved playing centerfield—especially in practice—but in retrospect I would have profited far more had I joined the track team that spring. I did just that my senior year in high school and benefited greatly (my track team, not so much!).
I mean only to question those parents who permit their children to participate in a sport or play a position simply because that is what the child wants. I care not to quibble with specific parental decisions in this regard or to come up with a list of taboo sports/playing positions. My contention is simply that faithful parental stewardship has to stretch beyond simply responding to whatever a child wants to do. Act decisively so that your children thank you in fifteen years for your insight. Do not worry so much about winning points with them now.
Making decisions regarding a child’s involvement in athletics can prove one of the rather challenging complications of parenthood. Yet by the grace of God, purposeful, parental resolve will enable us to handle this complication to his glory as we strive to faithfully equip his future church.