You know them. They have their kids’ team stickers plastered on the backs of their minivans. Every weekend — often during the week too — there’s a game or a meet. They may drive an hour, two hours, three hours to get there. Sometimes they are expected to pay an entry fee. Sometimes they are expected to work the concession stand. Other times they are expected to raise money, selling donuts or frozen pizzas or wrapping paper or cookie dough.
Then, during the week, there are the practices. Every weeknight, between school and homework, their child pushes himself under the authority of a coach who may not have any credentials beyond signing up for this. And if it’s not every weeknight, it’s three times a week, and the family is left to scramble for dinner in between shuttling to practice and back. No one eats at the same time, at the same table, on practice nights.
I look at these families and I think, this is not how I want to live my life. Let’s face facts: My kids will not grow up to march in the Olympics opening ceremony. None of them are Michael Phelps or Tim Tebow or fucking Pelé. And therefore, it is not worth sacrificing our family life on the altar of an athletic hobby. That’s why my kids, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, are not allowed to play organized sports.
Most of all, it’s the freedom of our nights and weekends that I want to preserve. There’s a Tall Ships event in town this weekend, and we can drop everything and go. We don’t have to wait for someone’s soccer game to finish or someone’s baseball practice to end. We also don’t have to wake up early if we don’t want to. And we never have to worry about sports interfering with church or brunch, our big weekly events with friends we call family.
When my husband comes home at night, he doesn’t have to rush from the practice field to the local fast food joint. Instead, we can hang out, eat when we want, then take the kids on a toad hunt by the river when darkness falls. My other kids aren’t beholden to a sibling’s athletic ambitions; we don’t spend our quality time on the sidelines of a practice field.
I realize organized sports have benefits. Children learn teamwork and cohesion and how to build each other up and how to take disappointment. And I didn’t say that my kids didn’t engage in athletic pursuits. We aren’t couch potatoes. My kids hike all the time — they climbed a mountain last month, even the 3-year-old, all on their own two feet. We go out into the woods bordering the creek, which we scan hard for gators, then laugh at the downed sticks and call them “logagators.”
My kids also kayak like a motherfucker. My 5-year-old has his own boat, which he can steer around a placid lake. My 7-year-old, meanwhile, begs to ride Class II rapids. And the 3-year-old rides on my lap. We often go out with friends, including my 7-year-old’s BFF. So there is some sort of socialization among the bass spotting and the rapid riding and the exploring.
They also take sports lessons. They do — wait for it — figure skating, with a former Olympian, no less. He’s left rinks when the parents got too competitive, and there’s no expectation that my kids will ever compete in anything. Right now, they’re in the march-across-the-ice-so-they-don’t-fall phase. They do it for an hour a week, and they love it. We aren’t traveling to meets or shelling out for costumes or consoling weeping children who just can’t do that certain jump yet and lose because of it. I strap on a pair of skates and help instruct them. It’s fun for everyone.
All the sports we do, we do together. We do them because we do them together, not in spite of it. We take as much joy in each other’s company as we do in the athleticism. That’s the most important thing to us: being together as a family. Call us clingy. Call us homebodies. But in the meager time we have together, we want to stick together. That means making sacrifices, and the big sacrifice is organized sports.
Am I sad my kids will never have the joy of T-ball, or I’ll never have the fun of getting their little pictures styled like real baseball cards? Yes. I see Facebook pics of unorganized toddler herds chasing a single soccer ball, and I feel a little pang. It’s adorable, of course.
But we made our choice, and we’re going to stick to it.