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Nine Ways to Balance Sports and Family Life

Raising sports active kids is difficult, perhaps never more so than today. Parents feel pressure to help their kids succeed and to keep up with other parents in an increasingly winner-take-all society. Too often, parents feel that if they don't do everything for their child, they are bad parents. Some parents seem to take pride in how busy and stressed are their lives and those of their kids, as if it is a measure of how successful they are and how successful they must be as parents.

Research shows that parents intuitively know how to balance their child's development. Yet more and more parents seem to be ignoring their own intuition by over-scheduling and over-stressing their child.

The statistics are troubling:

  • A University of Michigan study reports that:
    • only 30 percent of the days of school-age youngsters are "free" time, to use as they wish.
    • The other 70 percent is packed with classes, part-time jobs after school, homework, and extracurricular activities, like sports.
    • Structured sports time doubled between 1981 and 1997.
    • At the same time, unstructured outdoor activities declined 50 percent.
  • Today's parents spend eleven hours less a week (about 90 minutes a day) with their teenagers than they did two decades ago.
  • The average mother spends less than a half hour per day talking with her teens.
  • Only six in ten fifteen- and sixteen-year olds regularly eat dinner with their parents.
  • Family vacations are down by 28 percent.
  • Sports have replaced church on Sunday for many families.
  • Children are being benched for missing practice to be with their families on Christmas Eve.

Yet in survey after survey adolescents lament the lack of parental attention and say they want to spend more time with their parents, not less; more free time, not less. One recent poll of children between ages 9 and 13 found that more than four in 10 feel stressed most of the time or always. The main reason: they had too much to do. More than three fourths said they longed for more free time.

If you feel like sports are taking too much of your and family's time and money, if your child is feeling stressed, it is time to restore some sanity by finding a better balance. Creating balance in child's life is important because, if you don't, you send your child a dangerous and erroneous message that unstructured, un-pressured free time, fun for fun's sake and family time aren't important.

Here are some tips on finding balance.

  1. Have the courage to say no. Be honest with yourself and your children and, if you and/or your child are overextended, recognize the toll sports and other activities are taking on you and on your family instead of worrying that if you don't go the extra mile your kids will somehow suffer or will fall behind his peers. All too often kids seem to get the message from society and their parents that they can have it all. Setting priorities and understanding that you only have so many hours in the day and only so much money is something every child has to learn, sooner or later. It might as well be sooner. Sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is nothing.
  2. Balance sports and family life. Parents in the United States spend less time with their children than those in almost any nation on the planet. Set aside some family time. Research has shown that teenagers who eat dinner with their parents five times per week or more are the least likely to be on drugs, to be depressed, or in trouble with the law, and the most likely to be doing well in school and to have a supportive circle of friends. Set aside one night a week or month as Family Game Night, when you choose a board game, play card games, make tacos, and just be together. Make it sacred time. Before you allow your child to play a particular sport, or on a particular team, consider the amount of travel time to practices and games, your work schedule and your spouse's, your child's school schedule and homework demands, carpool availability, and the needs of other family members. Consider what you and your family will have to give up (Friday night pizza, family vacations, church on Sunday, etc) and whether those experiences are so important that you need to find time for them in your family's schedule. The irony is that weekends, the time families used to spend relaxing from the work/school week, are now filled to brim with sports activities. Try to set aside some time on the weekends to rest and recharge your batteries and those of your children for the week ahead.
  3. Set limits that fit your family. Find the level of sports and extracurricular participation that works for your child and your family. Take your cues from your child and trust your intuition. For some, one sport, one team per season may be right. Some children thrive on more intense involvement. Make sure that the limits that are set are ones that everyone in the family can agree on. Help your child learn to structure her own schedule and find personal balance between activities and downtime.
  4. Look for balanced sports programs. Look for leagues and clubs that balance sports, family, school and emphasize just having fun as much as winning. A child shouldn't be penalized for missing practice on Christmas Eve to be with his family.
  5. Find a balance between sports: Introduce your child to a sport such as golf, tennis, squash, racquetball, cycling, sailing, windsurfing, rock climbing, jogging, kayaking, rowing, or canoeing that she can enjoy after her competitive career is over. Encourage him or her to keep engaging in sports and activities with you as long as he or she enjoys them, like bike riding, hiking, skating, sailing, running etc. Encourage her to play different sports and avoid early specialization. Not only will it help your child to develop a variety of transferable motor skills such as jumping, running, twisting, which will ultimately help him to become better at sport in which he ultimately chooses to specialize, but it will reduce the risk of overuse injuries that too often result from early specialization and playing on a select team.
  6. Balance sports and academics. Schoolwork should always come first. Remember that there are thirty times more dollars available for financial aid based on academics than for athletics.
  7. Allow for a social life outside of sports. Being on a select team often requires a year-round or near year-round commitment and extensive travel. If you allow your child to participate she can end up socially isolated from her family, peers and the larger community. The athletic role can become so consuming and controlling that childhood essentially disappears. Early specialization can thus interfere with normal identity development, increasing the risk that a child will develop what psychologists call a one-dimensional self-concept in which she sees herself solely as an athlete instead of just a part of who she is. Many experts believe that if your child waits to play on a select team until seventh grade or later and waits until high school to specialize in a sport he is likely to be better adjusted and happier, have a more balanced identity, and less likely to have an identity crisis when his competitive sports career finally ends, as it is likely to do after high school.
  8. Make sure your child gets enough sleep. "Parents spend so much time and money optimizing their children's success yet the one thing they are not doing is making sure their kids get enough sleep," says Judith Owens, M.D., past chair of the Pediatric Section for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and co-author of Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep: The All-In-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens." "The greatest challenge for parents is the balance between homework, sports, music and sleep - don't over program your kids so that they give up their much needed sleep," advises Dr. Owens.
  9. Provide for unstructured free time. Play is, as Williams College professor Susan Engel notes in her book, Real Kids, "a central and vital process during childhood. It is not merely that children need time to unwind or have fun. Rather, without play they will be much less likely to develop just the kinds of thinking we feel are so vital to a productive and intelligent adult life." Believe it or not, boredom is actually good, stimulating kids to think and be creative and providing opportunities for real parent-child communication. That our culture seems to increasingly devalue free time doesn't mean you should. Kids need to grow up feeling comfortable with silence.

It is possible to create balance within your family's everyday life, even with children who participate in sports. But it is up to you as the parent to make certain that your kids don't over schedule and establish the right priorities.

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