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Parents: Have The Courage to Say No to More Sports

Doing Nothing Sometimes Best for Child and Parent

Youth sports parents, especially moms, seem to have a hard time summoning up the courage to say no to their kids when it comes to more sports.  The fact is that sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is nothing.

  • The Guilts. The culture seems to have given many parents, particularly moms, a serious case of the "guilts." In her controversial book, Perfect Madness, Judith Warner describes "a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret," which she says is "poisoning motherhood for American women today." It's a "culture of total motherhood," she writes, "that demands the suppression of mothers' ambitions -- unless those ambitions were directed toward getting Jackson into the best preschool in town or helping Maya score a better grade on her social studies test. Stay-at-home mothers are made to feel inadequate if they want too much time away from their kids. Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can't tune out the guilt. Many end up living a souped-up version of a June Cleaver lifestyle, complete with breadwinner dad and PTA-obsessed mother, all the while reassuring themselves that this was their choice. Their toned-down expectations and low-level resentment manifest themselves in sexless marriages and increased rates of depression."
  • The Mommy Myth. In their book, The Mommy Myth, authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels expose this media- generated "new momism" as "a set of ideals ... that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond [a mother's] reach."
  • The Mommy Mystique. In other words, parents too often feel that if they don't do everything for their child, they are bad parents. It is a myth, labeled by one the "Mommy Mystique", that the more you do for your child the better. What is good for Mom and Dad is not necessarily best for the child as well. As author Mimi Doe says, "Just because our own lives might be frenetic with work, family, and the endless tasks of daily life, doesn't mean that we should program our kids into that rhythm."
  • "Yes" versus "No" Women. Pollsters Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway observe in their book, What Women Really Want, that "Today's time-pressed woman is trying to learn to say ‘No,' in contrast to the ‘Yes' woman of previous generations of wives, mothers, workers and managers." Lake and Conway predict that, in the future, "Women will reclaim face-time with their families, workplaces, and communities, pushing for techno-etiquette (no ipods at the dinner table, no cell phones at cocktail parties and weddings, no Blackberries on vacation)," and that "‘Just say no' will become the mantra of the over-scheduled, guilt-trapped yeah sayers, as women who chronically do choose to do-not."

Learning to Say No

The bottom line is that sports parents need to learn to say no, occasionally.  Be honest with yourself and your children and, if you and/or your child are overextended, recognize the toll sports is taking on you and on your family instead of feeling guilty and worrying that if you don't do everything possible for your child, don't go the extra mile, your kids will suffer, will be deprived, or will fall behind his peers.

Sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is nothing. Children are not miniature adults. There will be plenty of time for them to be stressed and over-worked when they actually are adults. You need to have the courage to trust your instincts, just let your kid be a kid, to say no:

  • To your child: If your child asks whether she can play a certain sport, or join another team, get private coaching, etc. don't say yes immediately; tell her you need time to think before making a decision. If your child is invited to try out or join a select team before grade seven, politely decline the invitation. Instead of simply automatically writing checks, be more selective about what sports and other activities you underwrite.
  • To yourself: Give yourself permission to miss an occasional game or two. You are not a bad parent if you miss some of your children's games. It is healthy for your child to understand that the family doesn't revolve completely around her, that there is some limit to what you can do for her, and that adults are entitled to have lives outside of their kids' sports.  Parents who never miss a practice or game may actually being doing more harm than good: demonstrating a level of commitment to their child that is higher than what is appropriate for their healthy growth and development.   If you aren't sure about how your child will react to your missing a game, simply ask if it is okay.  You might be surprised at the answer you receive. 
  • To the coach: If you feel your child is over-scheduled, if you think it is more important for your son to attend a family wedding or cultural event, have the courage to say no to the coach, even if it means that your child will be penalized. Again, trust your instincts. You know what is best for your child and family.

Remember, though, if you say no, you will probably have a lot of explaining to do to your child. She might think you are sending her mixed signals: on the one hand telling her that playing sports teaches her valuable life lessons, especially commitment and sacrifice, but on the other telling her that, because you have decided to go on a family vacation during spring break, she won't be able to join her soccer team for a tournament.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench.

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