School holidays are over and parents can stop nagging their kids to ‘get off technology and go outside and play’. A request usually ignored (not least because it comes from adults on their own technology while working from home).
Last week, after being ignored for the gazillianth time, I typed a frustrated tweet asking what do you do with a kid who hates all sport and is hard to get moving. Responses came in suggesting everything from encouragement to bribery to force. My favourites involved paying a child $1 for each block they run, pretending you need something from the shop urgently and building a pretend Minecraft axe for outdoor use. I’ve tried them all except the cash prize – but I did attempt to jog in front of one child while holding up a chocolate biscuit in front of their nose. They shuffled only slightly speedier.
My son rides his skateboard and scooter, wheels on his heelies and chops wood. He even does a hip hop class to raise his heart rate. But these involve short bursts of activity. Not organised, rule based sport with whistles, coaches, sponsored uniforms and training.
As an Aussie not that obsessed with sport, I sometimes feel a stranger I my own land. But I do see what netball and gymnastics did for me as a child and what they do for my daughter.
The problem is that my son hates all organised sport.
So I ask: should kids like him be forced to do one?
We’ve all heard the arguments in favour of sport. It’s good for heart, lungs, bones, brains and coordination. It builds camaraderie, team spirit, togetherness, relationships, cooperation, sense of belonging and an awareness of group dynamics. Some say it even builds character. Studies in the U.S state that girls who do high school sport are 92% less likely to take drugs, 87% less likely to get pregnant and 3 times more likely to graduate.
Usually in Australia sporty kids are well liked, often revered and frequently powerful. They are more likely to be leaders, sports captains and have a cache of confidence.
But what about for those kids who shrink from sport? The ones who are either not coordinated, small or just not into it.
What if they can’t handle the pressure and the aggression that can occur on the field? What if they are simply not motivated by winning, a medal on a mantelpiece, orange segments at half time, or even a goal? What if they feel sport puts their weakness on display and feel harassed when they let their teammates down? We all know or have a story about not being picked, or about getting a ball to the head or having a humiliation on the field.
Given sport is about resilience, perhaps we should force them to push through and learn to deal with their distress. ‘Suck it up princesses’ as the parental critics say. By forcing them to keep going, it may help them build their skills at setting goals, self-discipline, patience and persistence. Or it may just lead to a lot of pain and dejection.
There are certainly many ways of getting fit and strong. But perhaps there are other ways kids and adults can develop their group skills. They can build team dynamics by being in a band. They can learn to cooperate playing a computer game. They can develop teamwork in a drama group. They can learn to lose with dignity when they fail in the classroom and learn to celebrate with humility when they win at monopoly.
While I am thankful my children do PE at school even when they hate it, I’m not sure I want them required to play a competitive sport. Since hosting the Olympics, Britain has been planning to do just that. As a parent I understand the attraction of schools that force all children on the field and require the A team to cheer on the Fs. But the child within me shrinks from such blanket rules of engagement. We have an obligation to make kids move and do things they don’t like but you can’t force a feeling of pride, group bonding and an enjoyment of getting out on the field.
Clearly it’s about finding a sport that suits the child; that they don’t merely bear to do but be excited by. I’ve been told to get my child to try judo, martial arts and golf. Archery is now rising in popularity thanks to the Hunger Games.
Childhood should be about trying lots of different things and not necessarily sticking to any of them. After all, we change enormously over our lives. Just look at me, I’ve gone from loving sport to hating it to being obsessed with a TV show about an American high school football team (Friday Night Lights is a Daily Life job requirement). Who knows? My son could end up as a champion bowls player. In the meantime, I don’t have to stand freezing, dripping and dying for a coffee beside a sodden field.
Perhaps he and I win at something after all.