Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sports Training for Toddlers? Ugh

The VarsityDad in me can't help but comment on this front-page story in today's New York Times, about the scam artists -- sorry: "entrepreneurs" -- who are selling sports training for babies and toddlers.

Let me start with this: It is totally appropriate to expose your babies and toddlers to fun ways to move and discover their bodies.

It is totally inappropriate to enroll them in a class with the intention of giving them a "leg up" on participating in sports, with some kind of vision of them being super-athletes.

Parents who do this need to get a grip. (The classes are bad enough; even worse are the snake-oil salespeople who encourage you to plant your 18-month-old in front of a DVD on the TV.)

We enrolled my older kid in soccer classes when he was 3, not because I want him to be a soccer star, but because it was something to do and the classes seemed extremely benign.

Now he's 4. We put him in an even more benign soccer class this past fall -- the big difference being the new class was held outdoors, rather than in a gym (and it was cheaper).

When he was 3 and a half, we started him in swimming classes. My wife was an elite-level swimmer growing up, and the last thing either of us wanted was for this to be some entree to that.

Instead, we just wanted him to become comfortable in the water. If he does nothing but happily splash around in the pool or ocean for the rest of his life, that's good enough.

(And, yes, we put our 2-year-old into the toddler swim class, but that was mainly because he wanted to be like his older brother. The toddler class couldn't be more laid-back.)

Little gets on my nerves more than the selfishness of parents who either project their own athletic dreams on their child or push their child into competitive sports too early.

I am of the "let 'em play" school: I love the idea of exposing my kids to being active and playing games and "practice" as a life skill and being part of a team. But that's about it.

Do I harbor (crazy) dreams that my kids will be superstar athletes? No sports fan in their right mind can resist. But it's a huge difference between your fantasies and your kid's reality.

The whole idea behind the "Varsity Dad" initiative was developing a healthy relationship between your kids and sports -- and, if nothing else, teaching them how to be great sports fans.

That's why I read today's article as a mockery of the industry -- while the column I wrote for the Times a year ago about taking my son to his first college basketball game was age-appropriate.

I'm not even sure it WAS age-appropriate: He was clearly too young to go -- perhaps not to a St. Francis game, but certainly to a Knicks game -- but I was so eager to take him.

Again, this very real issue with parenting: Projecting your own interests on your kid. I would say that "Be a great sports fan!" is way more benign than "Be an all-star athlete!"

But when it comes to babies and toddlers -- and even 3- or 4- or 5-year-olds -- there's something to be said for moderation and a healthy sense of perspective.

-- D.S.

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