Sports: Is it all about Winning?

OK all you sports fans out there. The annual late November long-weekend football marathon –accompanied by ginormous helpings of turkey and apple pie –is over. For me, there’s an even bigger watershed moment here. After 22 years of watching my children play soccer, I’m hanging up my parental cleats. So, as I ride into the sporting sunset, I have a question for all you sports parents out there. And those of you who play or played sports too. What’s it all about: Building Skills? Learning Teamwork? Winning? All of the above?

Sometimes it seems like you gotta choose one camp or another. I have been a soccer mom for 22 years (I still wince at those words but it’s true). And I have seen parents face off in debates about this dozens of times.

What’s my position? Well here are a few little anecdotes for you.

Equal Playing Time vs Winning

When my daughter was about ten years old she played on a neighborhood American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) team. One of AYSO’s guiding principles is that every player must play at least half the game. My daughter’s coach translated this into “equal playing time for everyone.” That year, that team was reeeeeeally bad. Saturday after Saturday they were trounced by their opponents. The girls left with heads hanging a little lower each week. Finally, the season finale was underway and lo and behold, they were winning! The girls on the sidelines were jumping up and down with excitement and crossing their fingers across their chests to lend luck to their teammates on the field. Everyone knew the best players were out on the turf. There were five minutes to go. We were holding on to a one-goal lead. Then….the coach changed lines. Out with the strong; in with the weak. I was shocked and horrified. I gathered up my things and walked away. What would you do? Footnote: The team hung on to win.

Some Playing Time…Any Playing Time

Let’s move on to college level sports. When you get to that elite level, every player has talent. So do you give every player some playing time? Or so you go with your subset of core superstar players exclusively? Sportswriter Frank DeFord just did a piece that’s on a slightly different topic but has relevance here. He argues that college athletics should be about participant experience rather than spectator experience. And I think this has some merit. I’m not talking about equal playing time. But about acknowledging the reason most athletes sign up for a team – to participate. If I were the coach, I would let everyone play, especially in low pressure situations where the likelihood of blowing the game is small. You can always sub out. And what are amateur sports all about?

What Do We Want Sports To Teach Our Kids?

The reality is every sporting situation has its own unique facts. The right decision in one case might not be the right decision in another. But here are some lessons I have learned along the way.

  • Winning feels good. It teaches your child that all the hard work they put in has a payoff. It spurs them to try hard. And when they win, it is a time to celebrate. In that after-the-victory moment, the good times roll.
  • Winning isn’t everything. And it isn’t an all-the-time kind of thing. Each of my kids has had at least one miserable, loss-after-loss season. They played just as hard and were individually just as good on these bad teams. But sometimes, everything doesn’t come together. And that is OK too. A bad season is not something to celebrate (I am not a fan of trophies just for showing up and trying). And kids are generally not cheerful about losing. But they learn to accept it. And look forward to next season. They realize that’s sports. And that’s life.
  • Losing all the time is not fun or productive. I have noticed that for each of my daughters, when they reach a level of competition that is higher than their ability, they transfer their energies into something else where they can be more successful. I think that is also a good lesson. As my boss always says, “There are 31 flavors. Find yours.”
  • Teamwork is hard but it pays off in spades. I shake my head when adults talk about the team aspect of sports as though it’s one big warm fuzzy. My experience is that team is not an effortless lovefest where all the players agree, are selfless, and care for each other. Inevitably there are personality clashes, rivalries, coaches’ pets, etc. Developing a strong team takes effort. But the hard work pays off throughout life – in school, in jobs, in marriages, and friendships.

There is definitely room for debate on this.

Do you think sports are good for kids? If so, what should they be getting out of it?

Thanks with Giving

I generally pride myself on being one of those strong mothers – you know, the ones who spend quality time with their children each day, delight in their kids’ successes, and talk through their problems BUT expect them to do their own laundry, make their own lunches, and write their own papers.

I also have been the kind of mother who wants to give her kids the best of everything life has to offer. This includes homey experiences like making playdough (click here for the recipe), chowing down on popcorn while taking in a movie on TV, or spending an afternoon at the local ice skating rink. So, OK, a cup of Swiss Miss hot cocoa seems reasonable and fun in the warming house. But a post ice-skating trip to Starbucks for a peppermint hot chocolate? Make that a grande, not a tall. And while we’re here can we get some of those great looking $2 per cookie treats to take home? A “No” on my part is met with a whiny “Pleeeez” or a pout. At this point, the joy of ice skating is a distant memory and I am asking myself “How did this happen?” More important, how can I, or any of us, keep it from happening on a regular basis?

We live in a materialistic world. Though there are many wonderful things about the technology revolution, one of the big downsides is the 24/7 exposure to advertisements. When I was a kid, I coveted the latest Barbie advertised on TV. But I also spent a lot of time playing with toys and running around outside, completely removed from ads. Very hard to do with the bombardment of popup ads and celebrity sales pitches on cellphones, computers and tablets. Along with that, has come the proliferation of specialty shops. I never cease to be amazed at the round-the-block lines in cities around the country for a customized cupcake or scoop of ice cream. When the holidays approach, the whole obsession with things goes into high gear. We want to give our children things that will make them happy. But, if you’re like me, you cringe at the extravagant wish lists.

What to do?

You Can’t Buy Happiness

This is the good news. Research is clear that reining in consumption is not depriving your kids of happiness. And chances are you have your own informal evidence. Has your kid ever begged for a toy but once he has it, plays with it for a few minutes then moves on to something else? It turns out, the research shows, long-term happiness is related to what you do for others, not what you ask others to do for you.

Create Opportunities to Give

So here’s my thought. Instead of spending so much time this holiday season stressing over the latest and greatest toy or outfit you can buy your kid, maybe spend time with him talking about things he is thankful for. Then create opportunities for her to give to others. Some ideas for activities for your child – what’s appropriate will vary with age:

  • Pick out and deliver a gift for a child at an orphanage or shelter
  • Instead of buying a gift to give away, decorate a large “giving box” and keep it in a prominent place where your child can place toys they have outgrown and now choose to give away
  • Make holiday greetings cards for family and friends
  • Bake holiday treats to give to family and friends
  • Volunteer at a food pantry or, if your child is too young, allow her to choose canned food and have an outing with you to deliver it
  • If your family likes to host parties, give your party a theme of giving. Socks or winter caps. Then give them away – and include your child in the planning.

It All Begins with Thanksgiving

Here we are at Thanksgiving. A wonderful time to get started talking to your child about what they are thankful for. A great time to create energy around ideas for giving back.

One more thing. After the giving and receiving is done, don’t forget the thank yous. Thank you notes are great. Emails are nice too. Also shouts of thanks over the telephone. And in-person hugs and kisses. Enjoy!

Added perk: Your child will be on the receiving end of lots of thank yous from those they give to!

Do you have other ideas for giving projects?

I Feel Ya

This has been a spirit-crushing week. Foremost in my mind, is the bloodbath in Paris. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the dead and wounded, and to all Parisians.

My heart has also been heavy as I’ve followed the racial conflict at the University of Missouri and my alma mater, Yale. The anger and alienation around the world is palpable, even as I sit writing in a small quiet town in Montana.

But feeling bad or even feeling solidarity is not enough. How can we respond in a way that makes a difference?

Start with the children: Teach empathy

We can start with our children. We can start by teaching empathy.

On a rain-drenched day last fall, a wheelchair-bound student struggled mightily to open the door to his high school. He eventually did get in. But it took a while. He was soaked. And he was beside himself with frustration. Right then and there he decided he wasn’t going through this experience anymore. The school told him, if he could raise the money for an automatic door, they would install it.

He did raise the money. And then some. All very admirable. But in reading about this, my attention was drawn to the way he went about it. The rules: For every $20 raised, one of his fellow students had to spend a day in a wheelchair. So now his classmates got a glimpse of life through his eyes. They experienced the feelings of life from a wheelchair. Now, they could feel why the automatic door was so important. He was looking to raise $40,000. He ended up raising $87,000. Empathy – being able to share another person’s feelings – is a powerful thing. It can change lives, even whole societies. The question is how do you raise empathetic kids without the wheelchair?

There’s an article out of Harvard that sums it up quite well, I think. Five keys (annotated here with some stories from my own life).

Be an Empathy Role Model

Living in a big city, my daily routines often take me past people on the street asking for money. It is easy to see these people as “other” (if we see them at all). They don’t look like us. They don’t have the same kind of daily activities that we do. It is hard for any of us – parents or children – to put ourselves in their shoes.

When my girls were little, I used to give them quarters to pass along to the homeless, explaining that these people were hungry. My children knew what their own stomachs felt like when they were hungry for dinner. This gave them empathy. Now I know this is a hot topic – some people believe in giving to beggars; others are vehemently against it. Whatever your philosophy, you can model empathy simply by not ignoring the situation and talking about ways you believe in to help the hungry.

Set High Expectations around Caring for Others

Having friends over after school was always great fun for my girls. But sometimes that first visit with a new friend needed an icebreaker. I have found that 99% of the time, food is a great way to get things going. So we would start with snacks. And always let the new guest choose – which sometimes meant making chocolate chip cookies when my daughter would have preferred peanut butter ones.

Here’s an example of how it played out: A little pout from my daughter, the hostess. We talk about that. How do you feel when you are the new kid? Doesn’t getting to choose the snack make you feel a lot better? She sighs. Nods. She knows the feeling. OK. Chocolate chip it is.

Draw a Big Circle of People to Care For

Care for others. This includes: Care for your family. Care for your friends. Care for your schoolmates – even those who don’t act like you or do the same things you do. Care for the ones who talk different. Or look different.

As your kid gets bigger, the circle gets bigger. Bigger kids can care for people they don’t know. Middle-schoolers can volunteer at a soup kitchen or a home for the elderly. High-schoolers can participate in a foreign exchange program or sign up for an internship summer in a part of the US that is new to them – city folks with rural communities; small town folks with inner-city families. Care for others.

Work Through Negative Feelings Toward Others

There are always going to be people your child just doesn’t want to be around. There was a girl in my third grade class who I thought was recklessly wild. She thought I was Miss Goody Two Shoes. So she picked at me, trying to get a rise. It worked. I was angry and upset.

My teacher was on to us. One lunchtime she sat us down and we talked about how we felt. We still didn’t like each other. But once we had aired our feelings, we had an understanding. The teasing stopped. And that was enough.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is not easy. Not for kids. Not for grownups. But like a lot of other things, we can keep getting better at it if we practice. Sometimes, there will be a wheelchair to help us empathize. Sometimes we have to look a little deeper to find common ground. The more we practice, the easier it gets.

Share your stories of teaching children empathy.

Learning Languages: It’s A Small World After All

Some years ago, when my three children were in various stages of elementary school, my sister and I decided to pack our up our broods for a fun-in-the-sun vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But before we could head to the white sand beaches, we had to pass through security.

Now, the inspection was really quite perfunctory. But it was in Spanish. I greeted the customs agent with an “Hola” and a smile and then strained to understand the question he asked in response. As I stumbled through a “Lo siento” with a totally confused expression on my face, and he repeated himself in a slower version of the same Spanish (which I still did not understand), my eldest daughter jumped in and answered in perfect Spanish. The agent smiled and nodded and we were on our way to the beach. Yessss! Score one for bilingual education.

I should mention that I do speak broken French and, though I am not fluent, I do make a go at it when in France. So many Americans complain about the snobbishness of the French people. Not me. They may look at me with a cocked head and an amused smile but most of all I have found an almost universal appreciation for my attempts at Francais.

So that’s part of it. Better vacations. But there are a lot of other – arguably more important – reasons to learn more than one language.

Bilingualism Gives You A Leg Up in the Global Economy

“It’s the economy, stupid.” We have lots of pressing issues to think about but this one sucker-punches us over and over again. Unemployment, stock market woes, the housing crisis. You name it. And, nowadays, it’s not just about what’s going on here at home. We are part of a “global economy.” What happens in Greece affects all of Europe which, in turn, affects the U.S. Foreign-owned companies provide jobs here and American-owned businesses have offices around the world. Many of my friends travel overseas for work without thinking twice – it’s just part of the job. And – as reported in US News and World Report – those who speak another language have a greater chance of succeeding in business.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember once watching my father take off from O’Hare Airport for a business meeting in New York. The whole family was there for the sendoff, my sisters and I pressing our faces against the windows in the terminal, awed that Papa had such important business that he had to fly on an airplane to NEW YORK. Flash forward a few decades and I’m struck by a TV commercial of a little girl and her father sending videos to one another as he conducts business overseas.

Projections are, the trend toward international business is only going to get bigger. Our kids will probably live in an even more fluid world where doing business in Beijing or Mumbai or Sao Paolo is par for the course. With that, knowing a second (or third or fourth) language may be a make-or-break skill.

Bilingualism Makes you Smarter

So, what else? Well, it looks like knowing multiple languages makes you smarter. There is research out there that links bilingualism to better memory, more effective multi-tasking and (looking down the road) better resistance to dementia giving us a better shot at actually having happy golden years. Have I got your attention? ☺

Bilingualism Builds Friendships

And then there are friendships. Some of the parties I went to in college looked like the United Nations – students with ancestry from China, Japan, Russia, Ghana, Mexico, Italy, and on and on. We built a language bank around the word “Hello” in every language we could think of. And we had a blast exchanging greetings. We felt pride in sharing our backgrounds of origin and exhilaration in the new bond with one another through our shared language.

When and How?

You may have heard – learn a language young or else…. A version of “use it or lose it.” But there are studies that conclude it is never too late to learn. So, if your children’s elementary school starts them off young – great! And, more and more schools are teaching a foreign language in elementary grades. But even if this is not the case at your school, you can jumpstart your kids to love learning languages – and they can become fluent later. When my kids were little, the kitchen was a tangle of tags I pasted onto fridge, stove, sink, and cupboards, identifying Spanish names for these objects. Though I wasn’t fluent, we had many great times sprinkling these words into our discussions. I think those good feelings are part of why my kids continued in their Spanish studies.

I’ll end with this. An old-time philosopher said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

Do you have stories about the power of languages in your life?

Reading To Build Baby Brain Power: Does Your Infant Understand A Word You Are Saying?

My family is celebrating the birth of our newest member. I love her name: Olivia Bliss.

Newborns are the ultimate embodiment of our hopes for the future. They arrive in this world with no track record. Which means their stories are not yet written. For us, their caretakers, it is out best chance at a do-over. As my mother always says, “Each generation gets better.” As the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song says, “Teach your children well.” The question is: When can you start? What can your baby understand?

You probably can already count off some things you hope your child will do better than you did. Here are some things I remember from my list: My kids would become fluent in a second language and understand the difference between a chromosome and a gene. They would not ditch their longtime, not-so-cool best friend for the super-cool new kid on the block. They would strike a nice balance between studying and socializing (hee hee).

But all that was dreaming about the future. (What I learned along the way as my kids grew up is the subject of another conversation.) This if for those whose baby has just entered the world. So, the question for today is: When can we start teaching our babies? Does your infant understand a word you are saying?

As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!” This is not just my own writerly, readerly enthusiasm bubbling over. Science backs me up.

Biggest brain growth is during preschool years

The value of talking to children, reading to children — even those who cannot yet talk back to you — is huge. A child’s brain has its biggest potential to grow during the first years of life. After that it slows down. Forever. Think of the newborn brain as a ball of unconnected cells sitting next to one another inside the baby’s head. Most of the brain cells your child will ever have – at the age of ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred – are right there at birth. But to develop intelligence, the baby needs to make CONNECTIONS between the cells. He or she has the capacity to do this with amazing speed – up to 700 new connections per second in the first year of life.

There is a catch — to power up the brain, the baby needs interaction with the world – lots and lots of it.

Talk, Read, Repeat

All sorts of new things get those connections crackling. I remember the wordless “conversations” I had with my baby. I smiled, she broke into a toothless grin. I cooed, and it triggered a gurgle or screech in response. You can see from Day One that your baby is soaking up your face, your voice, your touch.

Baby is primed for so much more. Words are key. You don’t want to waste a moment. The more you speak to your baby – even if he or she can’t yet speak back – the more brain connections your baby is making. Researchers have found that three-year-olds who have been exposed from birth to lots and lots of words have vocabularies that are twice as big as those who don’t hear many words at all. And, the same part of the brain that lights up when your baby learns words, lights up later when your child is learning how to read. Which, in turn, gives your child the tools to make well-reasoned decisions. Just this spring, as reported on by Drs. Oz and Roisin, a research study used brain scans to confirm that “Reading is Brain Food For Kids.”

Books You and Your Baby Will Love

The icing on the cake? There is something in it for YOU! There are children’s books out there that will cause your spine to tingle. Take a look at your bookstore or local library.

One of my very first loves was The Little Fur Family which begins: “There was a little fur family warm as toast smaller than most in little fur coats and they lived in a warm wooden tree.” How beautiful is that? I became addicted to the delicious feeling of these simple, well-chosen words rolling off my tongue. And my baby daughter was mesmerized (well, she sure looked entranced).

Most of the books I read in the baby years were beautiful and spare, almost like poetry – just a few hundred words. Classics like Goodnight Moon, The Snowy Day, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But, there were a few exceptions – books with page after page of sprawling multi-syllabic words. Max Makes a Million is a poster child for this kind of book – more than a thousand whimsical words that tell the tale of a dog named Max who lived in New York, “a jumping, jazzy city, a shimmering, stimmering triple-decker sandwich kind of city,” and who dreamed of living in Paris and writing poetry. The book is categorized as age appropriate for ages 5 and up. But my two-year-old was hooked. Before she was three, she had worn Max to shreds and could “read” it to me (i.e. she memorized it), from cover to cover. Did she understand every concept, every wildly imaginative riff? No. Of course not. But she understood the mood and she fell in love with the language. A friend of mine has told me her toddler grandson had a similar experience reading Me and Uncle Romie every day for months.

So that’s it. You have a golden opportunity – right from the beginning – to get your baby off on the right path. Talk to your baby – tell her what you’re buying at the grocery store or seeing outside the window; talk to him about what his toys look like – colors, shapes, textures. And read to your baby. Read board books. Read cloth books. Read simply worded picture books. Read books with more complicated language like Max Makes a Million or Me and Uncle Romie. Curled up together in the warmth of a book, you are giving your child the brainpower for a successful future. And to make a better world.

And, in case you’re too tired to focus much on the future just now: right here, right now, reading these zesty, imaginative books — that just might be the best part of your day!

Halloween: Facing Your Demons

Back in the day, when I was just starting out on my own, one of my favorite music videos was Michael Jackson’s Thriller (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve got to check it out. Really.). I was not alone. Over 9 million people were transfixed by Michael morphing into a werewolf in the light of the full moon, then teasing the viewer – is he really a terrifying ghoul or is it all imaginary fun?

Halloween: The Yin and Yang

In my neighborhood, there was one block – the “it” place to be on Halloween. The homeowners worked for months to prepare their yards, their rooftops, their porches. Everyone just knew it was the scariest street in the USA. As the sun went down and we were enveloped in inky darkness, everyone – I mean everyone – trekked over to Harper Avenue. The street was crowded with princesses and superheroes and – on the other end of the spectrum – mummies and vampires. Black cats and witches crouched on lawns in the shadows of flickering pumpkins. At some houses (and you never know which ones until you get there) fiendish laughter startled the young ones or they got caught in sticky cobwebs as they started up the steps for a trick or treat. Some screeched with giddy excitement. Some screeched with fear.

That sums up Halloween for me. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to act out your most cherished fantasies. One of my daughters who has an insatiable sweet tooth once chose to dress up as a bag of M&Ms. On the other hand, it is a day when you come face to face (figuratively) with your demons.

Facing Your Demons

We are all scared of something. For grownups, it might be the specter of losing a job or a spouse, or even just the vulnerability of not being able to be there to protect our kids every moment of the day and night. For teenagers it might be anxiety about a test or getting into college or losing a boyfriend or coming out or staying away from gangs. For toddlers it might be fear of the dark or strangers or, in many cases, Halloween itself.

The question, then, is what can you do about it? As many child development specialists will tell you, there is a general guideline here: teach your children to face their fears, not to bury them. This means, for starters, take their fears seriously; don’t laugh it off if your four-year-old tells you there are tigers prowling outside their second floor bedroom window or if your teenager insists he can’t go out because he has an acne outbreak. Take it seriously. Then, help them to look their fears square in the face and teach them how to take action to overcome them. This can play out in lots of different ways.

If a child is scared of the dark you can provide a nightlight or you can talk about the magical things like fireflies that come out to dance in the dark. You can set a routine of nightly bedtime story: For some, a cheerful favorite overrides feelings of fear; For others, stories about other children working out their fear of the dark are more helpful. I used to tuck my girls in with music or a story on tape. One of their favorites was kind of a hybrid of scary and hilarity – a story about Bunnicula the vampire bunny who sucked juice out of vegetables.

As your children get older, they may fear the uncertainties of life out in the larger world. One thing that I have found to help is giving them a sense that they are not alone. My daughters were very young when September 11 happened. I think it was hard for them to feel the reality of the Towers coming down. But the aftermath was very real: Military planes flying very low over our Chicago house for several days, our family room rattling from the sound of the engines overhead. When a plane would come, the girls would drop to the floor with their hands over their ears. My youngest had nightmares of bombs falling out of the sky. Even now, more than a decade later, these nightmares revisit her sporadically. One Christmas, I gave her a book, IraqiGirl (Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq). Living in occupied Iraq with bombs falling all around her, the author says, “Do you ever feel that you are imprisoned in a cage and there is no one except you and a big lion in this cage and you can’t get out. You can’t get out and there is nowhere to run. No way to run. That is my feeling.” Toward the end of the book, the author is on her way to college. She says, “”I am on my way to the future and living what could possibly be a happy memory someday.” It gave my daughter perspective. And a window into someone dealing with the same fears on a much larger scale.

I notice, too, as my daughters have moved out into the world away from home, they often paper their rooms with quotes such as “she believed she could so she did” to serve as models of how to face their fears.

Be A Role Model

One last thought. Children are observant. They often take their cues from you. How you face your demons can impact how they face theirs. In the words of our great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as he prepared to do battle with devastating poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Do you have stories or suggestions about teaching children to face their demons?