Tough Calls Off The Field in Kids' Sports | Worshipping At The Wrong Altar?

Tough Calls Off The Field in Kids' Sports

The July issue of Pediatrics carries a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics offering guidelines to protect children who specialize in one sport from "negative physical, physiologic and psychosocial effects that may result from intense training and competition." Great call! Many parents - including some like ourselves whose children are committed athletes - recognize how out of control the youth sport scene has become.

Even on the elementary school level, kids' sports rival pro leagues in intensity. Preschool gymnastics programs play to parental dreams of Olympic gold, as they proudly advertise their highly-credentialed foreign coaches. Abusive players and fans (often parents!) have compelled youth sports officials to protect themselves with assault insurance. Youngsters work out with personal trainers in the off season. We cheer the news that an organization with the AAP's clout and prestige is providing parents with ammunition to resist this intense, destructive competition.

And yet, another study in the very same issue of Pediatrics reports that daily exercise for teens can significantly increase adult female hipbone density. Given that wording, and the way the study will be covered by the media, good parents concerned about a daughter's future will feel they should take measures to ensure that their teenagers engage in athletics every day.

In our hyper society, such research gets reported as fact. As with previous studies authoritatively linking listening to Mozart with mathematical prowess and breast-feeding with an eight-point jump in IQ, many parents (and no doubt marketers) will take the finding as a call to action. For too many of today's teens, committing to exercise daily will mean signing up for a class, joining a team, or enrolling in some other form of structured athletic program - likely in addition to SAT prep classes, marching band, working on the school newspaper, volunteering at an animal shelter - and doing four hours of homework a night. What teen has time for casual exercise in today's world?

Of course kids should exercise. But we live in a world where Little League is a part-time job, requiring a ten-hour-a-week commitment from nine-year-olds. Which is why pre-adolescents all too frequently suffer from sports injuries related to overuse of still-growing bones and joints, and girls who play intense sports often have delayed menses. At a time when we desperately need to incorporate balance, moderation, and good judgment into children's sports programs (indeed their entire lives!) information barraging us commands that we owe our children every advantage possible - in athletics, as well as academics and the arts. Every moment of a child's life should be productive and goal-oriented. It's what we're told the colleges look for.

Family life is under assault. Parents and children pay the price. Notions like compromise, sacrifice, and togetherness seem old-fashioned when we parents are pelted with advice from experts telling us exactly how to raise a perfect, successful child. Do we also have to be told that teenagers should play daily sports to be healthy 30, 40, or 70 years hence?

We wonder, does science actually know exactly how much exercise correlates with optimal hipbone density? Are we certain of the relationship between hipbone density at 16, and the likelihood of fracture at 80? Doesn't genetics factor into the equation? Lifestyle? Nutrition? Luck? There might well be a broad band of "sufficient" exercise that is equally protective with a far lower emotional cost. We'd guess the researchers who did the study, which is a valid and important one, don't know for sure.

We'd argue that this study, like many other such "scientifically-based" studies, is far less conclusive than the public is led to believe. Scientists need to promote their findings in order to get more research dollars in order to do more research. Magazines and newspapers and television programs need compelling content; crucial details (like the fact that this study included only "non-Hispanic, white females") are lost. Studies like this get linked to our health concerns, detailed in a "news you can use" format, even if it isn't totally accurate. Furthermore, the newest, most definitive research routinely contradicts the irrefutable scientific advice we got last month, or last year.

Much that is important gets omitted from such "scientific" articles. Particularly absent is perspective on the total person. Where does hipbone density figure in the measure of an individual? What about emotional, physical, educational, and ethical development? Our lives need balance. Has objective research shown that playing tennis three times a week is inadequate? Delivering newspapers by bicycle or walking the family dog might provide sufficient exercise to be protective, while developing character as a child contributes to the well-being of the family, and community, as a whole.

The AAP is among society's most responsible, well-intentioned organizations. Its warning against hyper-sports is in its characteristic spirit of doing what is best for kids. It promotes research that is critical in understanding and solving health problems. But so much of that research gets distorted through the hyper-parenting lens of contemporary magazines, newspapers, morning and evening news programs, even broadcast in the form of "parenting advice" over sound systems in our local supermarkets! Must we be so intense about it all? Children are getting hurt, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, parents are being overwhelmed with needless anxiety, and hard-earned money is being spent on unnecessary products and enrichment programs.

Yes, let's listen to that AAP recommendation that extreme sports are not appropriate to young children. Let's also listen to our own good sense about what our children need. Let's stop reacting to every research finding as though it is definitive and correct. Let's stop pressuring our kids to perform constantly, judging every little thing they do on the odds for future success in life. Childhood is a preparation for adulthood, not a performance. Every moment does not have to be productive, every move they make doesn't have to matter. Perhaps we even ought to make time for them, and for us, to relax and have some pointless fun once in a while.

- Alvin Rosenfeld M.D. and Nicole Wise

Worshipping At The Wrong Altar?

Why did it take ten days for the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association to decide that religious tradition is more important than soccer standings?

It wasn't all that long ago that kids played sports for fun - and it would have been unthinkable for any child's activity to interfere with religious observation. But that was then, and this is now - which means it has come to seem almost reasonable for a Fairfield, Conn., soccer coach to refuse to reschedule a game to accommodate the opposing team, from Avon, with a Jewish coach and six Jewish players, who weren't willing to play on Rosh Hashana. The Fairfield coach claimed an earlier game would put his team at a disadvantage, since he had two injured players. The CJSA remained inflexible for more than a week, before finally agreeing to extend the deadline.

Let's not forget we are talking about fifth graders! This used to be the kind of dilemma that only professionals, like Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, had to wrestle with. But in our world today, where children's activities, achievements, and athletic endeavors have become the center of family life, many think, well, gee, that is a tough call.

The whole youth sports scene is out of control. People have fallen into the hyper-parenting trap, putting way too much importance on every aspect of a child's life, most especially on the playing fields. In the last year alone, a Belmont, Mass., father killed another over a disagreement about youth hockey. Police had to be called when parents in North Hunterdon County, N.J., got into a fistfight with Staten Island parents over a young girls' travel soccer game. Numerous communities around the country are requiring parents (not kids) to enroll in sportsmanship classes. And this past summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics felt the physical and emotional costs to kids had skyrocketed so high that it issued a policy statement against involving children in extreme sports (not that anyone paid any attention).

Now this.

Perhaps we ought to be pleased that Jewish holidays are getting some notice in a country where most citizens are Christian. That does represent real progress with regard to respecting differences. Yet as a citizen, an Episcopalian, and the mother of four athletic kids, I am appalled that sports leagues take up our Sundays - though I've managed to make an uncertain peace with it, since in my own case, games are played after 12, which makes both church and soccer attendance at least a theoretical possibility. But scheduling (and refusing to reconsider!) important games for important holidays - in communities with significant Jewish populations, at a time when we purport to celebrate diversity -- is quite clearly a case of worshipping at the wrong altar.

My job as a parent includes instilling values from hygiene to homework to how to treat others who have different cultures and traditions. Those tasks are tough enough these days. Should I have to tell my four children that while in our family we respect religious differences, society at large considers competition more important? Think of what that does to a team and team spirit. Not to mention inner peace.

Strongly religious families simply don't participate in these leagues, and maybe that's one answer. But can't we have both, weekend sports and respect for tradition? Can't we treat youth sports as recreation, not the center of our family life? The relatively secular among us shouldn't be put in the position of forcing our child to make a choice between sports, letting coaches and teammates down, and religious observance on High Holy days, the few days a year that America's synagogues are standing room only. This is, after all, the 21st century, and these religious battles are supposed to be history - at least here in the U.S., where respect for our differences is one of the primary principles our nation cherishes and stands for.

Changes need to be made, and not just with a red pen on next year's calendar. We have lost our way - and if adults are so clueless about what matters that we honestly believe pre-teen sporting events take precedence over religious traditions that are thousands of years old, what are we telling our children about finding meaning in life? Why are we parents so insecure in our authority that we do doubt our gut instincts about what is so obviously right for our kids?

Childhood is a preparation for adulthood, not a performance. We should not place so much importance on what our kids are doing - on the field, on a stage, even in the classroom - that we trade tradition for trophies. Let's give our kids a childhood, and a foundation for an emotionally sound adulthood. That would be a decision worth cheering.

- Nicole Wise

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