Family Matters

Little Kids Playing Sports. What’s So Wrong with That?

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My first reaction when I saw a recent New York Times story about really little kids taking to the playing field was: “That’s my daughter!” Not exactly, of course; same uniform, different child. But I read on with attention I don’t generally lavish on the sports section, curious to understand why Lil’ Kickers soccer is being vilified.

The piece is spot-on in terms of the unbearably cute pics of toddlers and preschoolers in “improbably small soccer jerseys” (my 3-year-old’s baggy soccer shorts stretch past her knees). It draws a bead on over-the-top fitness regimens that involve babies; Gymtrix, for example, sells videos that encourage training babies as young as 6 months. But read on, and you’ll find that training babies really just means “a lot of jumping, kicking and, in one exercise, something that looks like baseball batting practice.”

With our nation growing fatter by the minute, is promoting physical activity really so bad? I think it’s a lot more innocuous and a lot healthier than marketing electronic games to kids. More importantly, it’s fun for them. (More on Time.com: Study: America Is Officially the Fattest Developed Country in the World

In the Times piece, an orthopedic surgeon expresses concern over pediatric injuries that could result from pushing kids to become super-athletes from a young age. (He probably doesn’t need to worry too much in light of a new study published Monday that found team sports don’t offer kids enough of a workout.) I’m sure those uber-competitive parents are out there, but I don’t personally know any moms or dads who are gunning for a berth for their kids in a future World Cup. (More on Time.com: Think Your Kid’s Physically Fit? Team Sports Don’t Offer Nearly Enough Exercise)

Maybe they’re all friends with Doreen Bolhuis of Gymtrix, who says in the article that, “We hear all the time from families that have been with us, Our kids are superstars when they’re in middle school and they get into sports.” Maybe some parents are trying to enhance their children’s coordination so that they’ll be primed for junior varsity and varsity athletics, but most parents are just trying to get their kids moving and introduce them to sports that can help them build a healthy lifestyle.

The article didn’t explore one valid and unfortunate consequence of starting kids in sports earlier, and that’s pressure to play. It’s one thing if kids ask to start playing; it’s another beast entirely if parents feel they must push them in that direction — or else. These days, starting soccer or basketball in middle school is unheard of. By then, kids have been playing for years. A sixth-grader who suddenly warms to soccer will likely have a tough time finding an age-appropriate class or team since everyone in her grade has likely been playing since elementary school, if not before. Much as some colleges lean on students to commit to a major early on, young kids are compelled to start playing sports or get left out. I’m not sure what can be done about that. (More on Time.com: The Older Kids Get, The Less They Move)

In my case, my girls, 3 and 5, bugged me to play soccer because their 7-year-old brother does. Why not, I figured. Although many girls take naturally to sports and are every bit as competitive as boys, my daughters are generally content to play “mommy/baby” every chance they get. I was happy to help them expand their recreational horizons. The concept of a coach getting them to run around for an hour and generally exhaust themselves shortly before bedtime only sweetened the deal.

My 3-year-old has a crush on her coach; she loves slaloming between the orange cones he places on the turf. The highlight of the session? Undoubtedly, the hand stamp. My 5-year-old likes to socialize with the other kids. She’s often daydreaming when the ball comes her way, and that only makes me laugh. She still gets a workout and takes pride in her blue polyester uniform. (More on Time.com: You Must Be “this Tall” to Participate in this Triathlon

The fall session ended a week ago. My 5-year-old announced she intends to trade her shinguards for ballet slippers. That’s more her style, but I’m glad I didn’t pigeonhole her into becoming a prima ballerina just because she likes pink, tulle and skirts that twirl. My 3-year-old? She’s still got the hots for Coach Dan. If scheduling permits — and not because I’m trying to create the next David Beckham but simply because she loves running around in her improbably small jersey — I’ll sign her up again.

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