Why is it a Good Idea for Adults to Control Kids’ Sports?

Here's some 'quality time' between dad and son.

I’m a fairly new dad – my oldest is 3-1/2 years old – and I still puzzle about things I see other parents doing. My most burning question for today is, why is it a good idea for adults to control kids’ sports? More specifically, why do they need to coach and referee them?Most, if not all of you reading this will think that’s a silly question. Whether you do or not, please bear with me for a moment. I want to examine some reasons I can think of.

1) We want our kids to be great athletes, and we think we can teach them things that will accelerate their athletic development.

Well, do we really want our kids to be great athletes? I mean, sure, we don’t want our kids to be klutzes, but do you really think, with our help, your kid will be the next Tiger Woods? I agree that deep parental involvement can make some difference in a kid’s development as an athlete. However, some of the greatest athletes in history, such as Babe Ruth, never had adults watching over them, so it’s not the case that without adults around, kids will do nothing but stumble and fall. Do you really think having adults as coaches and referees will give your kid the extra nudge he or she needs to land that multi-million dollar pro contract? C’mon, folks…

2) We want our kids to know the “right way” to play different sports.

Sure, we don’t want our kids running around with the basketball and jumping off the wall to dunk it. On second thought, why not? You know, kids who play without adults around come up with some very interesting, athletically challenging games. I’ve got some stories, and perhaps you do, too. What does it matter if they make up their own rules? Are you concerned that they won’t be well-prepared for the NBA (see 1 above…)? Perhaps they’ll hone their creativity and problem-solving skills without you around to tell them what not to do all the time…

3) Adults teach kids “character” in sports.

Leaving aside all the recent stories of rabid dads attacking officials and coaches at youth sports games, let’s assume that there are many adults who can teach kids valuable character lessons through sports. Is it necessary for adults to control every event entirely to teach kids character? This issue reminds me of the “observer effect” in physics, which says that observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. This is always true, but it’s more true the more directly and closely we observe something. So, we do not get a good picture of our kids’ characters by coaching and refereeing them.

If we really want to teach kids character through sports, I believe we need to let them make a lot more of their own decisions when they play, and then talk to them after about their decisions. I’m talking about decisions like game strategy, what the rules should be, how to interpret rules in different situations, and whether they play at all (e.g. after losing or failing). So, kids should be doing a lot more of what coaches and referees do if we want them to learn character. If adults determine all these things, then the sports really are all about kids’ athletic performance and nothing else.

Of course, if they do all these things and make all these decisions and we never observe them, we will let many “teachable moments” go to waste. I’m not advocating that parents never observe their kids experiencing the ecstasy of victory or the agony of defeat. Rather, I’m advocating that they observe in a way that minimizes the “observer effect” – i.e. from a distance, without controlling the event – and “teach” the character lessons later. In other words, watch, but let them play, and talk about it later.

4) Kids will get hurt if we don’t watch and monitor them while they play sports.

The danger parents are thinking of, I believe, is primarily the danger of kids hurting each other by not using safe equipment, by playing too aggressively, or by fighting amongst themselves.

Certainly, I do agree that kids are probably somewhat safer when they play sports with adults around. However, I believe that parents fears of what would happen if they weren’t in control are exaggerated. What would happen would be a few more small injuries, not large ones, and small injuries like skinned knees and sprained ankles can provide great character lessons (see 3 above). There’s a book about this very issue called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.

5) The time we spend with kids at their sporting events is “quality time” that our parents didn’t spend with us.

Research shows that the single most important time families can spend together to benefit children is the time spent eating meals together. Organized sports are often the primary reason many families don’t eat dinners together.

So, if you’re really serious about spending quality time with your kids, you and your neighbors should curtail or eliminate organized sports, encourage your kids to play sports in the neighborhood after school, and call them in to eat dinner every night. Doesn’t that sound terribly retro, hopelessly out of date? Well, believe it or not, there are a few parents who are doing just what I recommend here. In a future article, I’ll tell their story.

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