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Fear Trumps Ambition

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Saying no is hard to do, especially when it comes to our kids. And when our kids are offered opportunities to play on multiple sports teams – whether it’s summer travel teams, club sports, or school sports, it’s a challenge to find a good balance between athletic development and, well, life.

For many of us, fear trumps ambition.

I recently talked with a mother who outlined this common parental dilemma for me so perfectly: you choose between committing your 7-8 year-old to play for the travel team, or having a kid who is miserable without a chance to see her friends and develop her skills. And yet, parents know the travel team is a huge time commitment for their children and the family as a whole — it can mean missing other opportunities at work, in the community, as a family.

Even at age 7 or 8, we as parents feel every decision we make will have a major impact on the rest of our kids’ lives. So, there is a weight to committing to the travel team and a responsibility, a burden parents feel. The fear is: if I don’t let her play for the travel team, I’m damaging her, and shutting off opportunities. But it just doesn’t feel like there is a reasonable alternative to the intensity of the travel team schedule.

Have we lost capacity to raise our children based on what we feel are reasonable values out of fear of upsetting our kids and possibly damaging them?

If sports were ice cream, things would be different

I wonder how we’d approach this problem if we used another example, like ice cream eating. If our son, for example, demands that we allow him to have ice cream for lunch at school every day and go out for ice cream every single night, do we say yes, out of fear of disappointing or upsetting him?  

The truth is, of course the question of whether to commit to the travel team, or club sports, or school sports is more complex than the ice cream question. Because what we’re really grappling with, on behalf of our kids, is a fear of missing out, or FOMO, as the kids say these days.

All of his friends are doing it — the travel team. And we imagine that if he doesn’t join, he’ll feel left out or awkward in the lunchroom. Or, he may be staying home while his friends are out having fun, being social with other families who are also a part of the team. At school, kids discuss, banter and tease about their busride exploits, and your child can’t even participate in the conversation. He feels left out, sad, and disconnected.

And now you worry about self-esteem issues. None of his friends want to sleepover because they’re busy with travel team friends.  And you worry where this is going … will this scar him in his development? Should we morph our family evening routines to accommodate the travel team schedule, at the expense of other family members’ schedules and needs?

We might say to our children, it’s OK to play on one team, but we don’t think it is healthy to have an intense schedule of traveling and playing multiple games throughout the week and weekend. In fact, what we are saying is that we know better, and we are saying no. Maybe our child doesn’t like it. Maybe they express hatred toward us, that we are ruining their lives. Maybe it does affect the friendships they make. Does that make us change our minds?

These dilemmas emerge for all of us as parents. How do you say no? While each child is different and there is nuance in every family, it is our difficult but critical role to struggle and make these decisions. We aren’t always right. Frequently, we are unpopular. But, if we are grounded in our values, loving, and open to finding positive and healthy experiences for our children, we are doing well by them.

In fact, saying no in the face of everyone else saying yes can be a profoundly loving act. We have to believe that our kids, if given a strong foundation, will find opportunities and friends. They will find their way and when they look back, they might even say, “Thanks. Thanks for having the perspective to say no. That allowed me to say yes to other important friends and opportunities that I now treasure.”

In the end, parents care less about achievements than advertised.  We just want our kids to be happy in life and not hate us or blame us in the process.  What it comes down to is to make the choice that’s right for your child and your family. There are countless scenarios and each may be different, but what’s important is making the logical decision, whether your child agrees with it or not.

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.

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