Kids, Sports, and Free Time.

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Jake’s Tennis Team at their first match!

This is a new experience for me…sitting inside typing a blog post in a quiet house while the boys roam the street together with their friends. This stage of life came upon me quite suddenly. I can hear the shudder of the handball against the wall next to the garage, and the muffled shouts of the kids negotiating and re-negotiating the rules of the court. About an hour ago Jake burst through the door asking if they could chase a stray dog who was running toward the next street over to find out where its collar said it lived so they could return it. With all of this chasing and handballing and paper-airplane throwing and scooter racing, their afternoon passed in boyish bliss. I finally made them come in for dinner if only for 15 minutes, then they were right back out again.

Our street has 27 kids who are elementary aged and younger! Around the corner there are at least another 10, and probably more whom I don’t know. Within a few streets walking distance I wouldn’t be able to even count how many kids there are. When we thought about moving into the quiet canyon nearby, this was the reason we decided to stay in the end. Of course, even with all those kids, you rarely see anyone playing outside.

In fact, the only reason my kids are playing out there right now is because we don’t have our usual tennis lessons tonight.

Out of all the kids on our street, there are only seven or eight who are regularly free to play when the boys go ask them. Three of those are rarely allowed to come over and definitely don’t just play outside with whomever. That leaves four or five who can run around and spend time making their own fun. The rest of the kids are at boy scouts and sports and day care and music and art or are watching a sibling do those things at their lessons.

We are one of them on some days. And right now we only have two kids! Imagine what life will be like when we add some more bodies to the bunch!

There is a real knack to finding the balance between over-scheduling and under-scheduling. I want to expose my kids to lots of things and let them see what kinds of activities they enjoy. But by the time you’re in third grade around here, you have to commit to big chunks of time to be involved in almost anything. The kids on the street aren’t rallying up to play a game of basketball or baseball or soccer anymore. They do ride bikes together, but all the “sports” are left to the coaches and official teams. What’s a parent to do?

I have always been determined to guard my kids’ free time as they get older. I want them to develop a strong imagination and know how to entertain themselves in a quiet and peaceful setting at home. Thankfully, the boys are pretty good at that now!

There’s another side of life, too. I want them to have a chance to try piano and art and language and sports. To be on a team or to learn to lose gracefully at an individual sport. To work hard and see results. To gain confidence through meeting challenges on a field or a court as well as in a classroom.

But I don’t want to give up too much family time either. I know that the years of influence are slipping by quickly. I cherish our meals as a family and our nights playing games. It won’t be much longer before they don’t want to read together before bed or ride bikes as a family to the frozen yogurt shop after dinner.`Each conversation we have after school as they snack is my precious chance to influence their world view towards heaven. I don’t want to crowd all that out just for a chance to join a team or earn a badge.

Right now we’re in limbo, waiting for our future kids to join the family. We’ve got quite a bit of free time in the afternoons, which is great. Wednesday is our busy day with snack, homework, piano, dinner, tennis and bedtime. But it’s our only busy day and I can handle it. Mondays we have tennis for an hour, and Saturdays we spend the morning as a family at the tennis courts. It’s a sport where there’s plenty of family interaction even during lessons, which is a big plus. Sundays we spend the morning at church. Tuesdays and Thursdays are totally free. And Fridays we invite friends or our church group over for the evening.

I was reading something recently about how kids can strain their bodies if they aren’t diversifying their sports when they’re young. I know there are plenty of kids who burn out mentally after playing a sport from age 5-15. Just when it’s time for that elusive college scholarship that all the parents are chasing for their kids, the kids don’t want to play anymore. We actually know one high schooler who turned down a tennis scholarship because he was tired of playing tennis and just wanted a regular college life. We know another high schooler who accepted a football scholarship and played college football, committing pretty much his entire life to the sport for his four years of college. In the end he was drafted to the NFL and deferred his last classes and college graduation for it, only to be cut from the practice squad of one team and then turn down another NFL team when they later tried to recruit him. He was done. And out of all the high school kids we know through Greg being on high school staff for the past 9 years, I think those are the only two who had a chance at money for their sport. But we all think that our kid is going to be that one kid, right?!

I won’t lie…I’m the same way! Our boys have shown considerable talent at tennis and I have already wondered if they could have scholarships in their futures. I know, I know, crazy mom alert. Lucky for me, before I got too carried away, Greg set me right and reminded me how rare those scholarships are. I found some information online that backs him up. And I read that athletic scholarships are actually only given to about 2% of the total number of kids playing high school sports. Wow. Here is a great article about it. And another one here. Sigh. I guess the tennis scholarships shouldn’t be our goal after all. I know that somebody will get that tennis scholarship (which, by the way, is more likely to be close to $2,000 rather than $10,000), but odds are, it won’t be my kid even if he’s the phenom of the county (which he isn’t…yet!)

So if athletic scholarships aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, that takes some weight off my shoulders. I know there are many families who seem to enjoy the busy busy busy involved with most sports around our area. There is a thrill to cheering the kids on and hanging with the other parents all weekend and on weeknights. I do love the camaraderie, but there is a serious limit to how many things I’m willing to sacrifice from our lives to give the kids the sports experiences I think they need. With my new perspective on the college scholarship situation, now I can make my scheduling decisions based on how my kids will learn and grow from each experience we choose for them, and that includes our family time. There are great things to learn from organized sports, from unstructured time, from family bonding, and from negotiating the world without a coach close by.

I’ve told the boys that my goal is for them to have a group to connect with in high school (to keep them busy and out of trouble!) They need to be on a sports team or in the band or theater during high school. If they don’t want to learn to play an instrument, they can run cross country in the fall and track in the spring (I believe those are still sports where they don’t cut anyone, right? Maybe swimming, too? It was when I was in high school!) If they keep going with tennis and instrumental music, they can do band in the fall and tennis in the spring. Heaven forbid Tyler decides to go out for football…oh my. I wouldn’t be surprised and if he does, we would be out there cheering with the best of them!

For now, I can schedule our kids to have just the right amount of sports experience without sacrificing all of their unstructured play time or our family dinners which studies have shown over and over again to be a top predictor of student success in college. They can learn the value of being on a team and the fun of winning together without practicing/playing five days a week and being on the traveling All Star team. They can learn about hard work paying off in whatever sports we choose, as well as in their schoolwork. I want them to have time to dabble in piano and guitar and art and constructing ramps for their cars in the backyard. I want them negotiating the social systems of the kids on the street as they make up wars and battles (they’re playing Hunger Games lately! Ugh!) Most of all, I don’t want to get to the point where we’ve lost our family hang out time…the time when they’re learning our values and we’re talking about the big and little things of life and faith. And of course, there’s got to be time for academics. Because all of those articles I read about athletic scholarships say the same thing…academics are where the money’s at! Hmmm…maybe a scholarship could be in the future after all! For now, I’m enjoying this schedule we’ve got right now. When we get more kids, who knows what the future has in store.

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