These trends have not only harmed the children of middle- and upper-class families who dominate the high-stakes world of contemporary youth sports. They have also created increasingly sporting opportunities out of reach of children from low-income families. “It’s what I would call a feast or a famine,” Flanagan said. For parents looking for a more regular diet, she advised letting children’s interests guide, keeping the whole family together, putting sports into perspective, and modeling the behavior you want your children to learn.
Look at your child
Many parents now see their children’s athletic accomplishments as a reflection of themselves. How do you know if you are in this camp? Be careful what you think of the game’s outcome, Flanagan said. It’s okay to be proud of your child’s performance, but there is a limit. Even more indicative is when a loss or poor performance puts a parent in a bad mood.
To refocus attention on children, Flanagan said, “Let them initiate. They should decide what to play, when to play, whether to play organized sport. She acknowledged that when given a blank canvas, many children may choose to spend time in front of a screen, which does not provide the physical or mental benefits of sport. In this scenario, parents can push with suggestions, but she recommended giving lots of options if possible, not just pushing them towards a specific sport.
Once they are on the team, observe and listen to their experiences. Even if they are naturally good at a sport, they may not enjoy it for one reason or another. Create hangouts – opportunities for them to continue to decide if they like a sport as they get older.
Keep your whole family
In addition to the money, time and relational sacrifices some families make for a young athlete’s sport can be enormous. Two basic steps parents can take to avoid fragmenting their families in the process are to start organized sports later and stay in local leagues for as long as possible.
Beyond that, Flanagan occasionally recommends saying no to a manager’s request or club expectation. Groupthink can make this difficult, but sometimes talking can also give other parents permission to set boundaries. In her book, Flanagan gives an example she heard from a football player’s mother. When the first opponent in an upcoming soccer tournament forfeited, the coach scheduled a substitute exhibition game. Families had to drive over an hour early in the morning and wait for hours until the next game. Other parents confirmed they would be there – until this mum replied that maybe playing one game was enough. Shortly after, other parents agreed and the show was canceled.
“Parents feel like they have no power here,” Flanagan said. “And I’m like, no, you write the checks. You work together to define the conditions.
Keep youth sports in perspective
Don’t be confused. Flanagan loves and values sports. She played softball as a teenager, fostered her children’s athletic interests, and coached women’s teams for 17 years. She knows the health benefits of physical activity and the satisfaction that comes from training hard. She also knows how not to sweat the small stuff. “It seems so important. A lot of things have to do with raising children. But it doesn’t matter whether they become academics or become captains. They are going to be who they are,” she said.
To keep that perspective, Flanagan recommended befriending older relatives, not attending every game, and developing your own interests separately from the kids. The latter was particularly important in teaching her children to respect her as a full human being, she said.
Model the behavior you want your child to learn
Having her own interests also helped model a “rich and satisfying adulthood” for her children. When parents don’t, Flanagan said it sends a message that kids should avoid growing up “because it really isn’t fun.”
Other behaviors include treating coaches with respect and thanking them for their commitment. (But not excluding watching for signs of abuse.) Dealing with disappointments is another. When parents react to something like making Team B a meltdown, it signals their child to feel badly hurt. “They’re inspired by parents,” Flanagan said. Instead, parents can “speed up the language” and help children recognize these times as part of life’s ups and downs.