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Sports Gave My Daughters A Place Where Aggression Is Good, Actually

My heart swelled as I watched both girls test the limits of this world with different rules.

Written by Laura Onstot
Yasser Chalid/Moment/Getty Images

If I had to name my parenting style, it would be a combination of laid-back and free-range, so I’m not one of those parents who stacks their child’s schedule full of sports and extracurriculars. But this winter, I put my daughters in basketball after watching my eldest nail basket after basket at the hoop in the park. I watched in awe as these two little humans fell in love with a sport I knew nothing about. Best of all, though, suddenly my spitfire younger daughter had an outlet where she could really shine, and her aggression was considered a good thing — something that’s all too rare for girls.

Now, we are not a basketball family. I didn’t know anything beyond the fact that dribbling with two hands at the same time is illegal and Michael Jordan used to play. At the first practice, my husband and I watched in terror as our youngest attempted to make baskets by standing directly under the hoop. In the first game, one daughter stood in the corner of the court, with her arms raised, “blocking.” But there was no one remotely near her, so she looked more like Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. Our other daughter shared the ball generously and made sure to stay out of the way of the other team. After the final buzzer, my husband turned to me and said, “We’ve parented them to be too kind.” I shot him an unkind look. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

On the car ride home from the game, we explained that it is okay to be aggressive when playing basketball. They didn’t need to share the ball with the other team, and when possible, they should take the ball away from the other team.

They looked at us with narrow eyes, confused. And I realized that what we were explaining went against every “share!” they heard in their life. While we expect them to be kind, we explained basketball has different rules than life. And in basketball, the goal is not to be the kindest player out there. And something really clicked for our youngest. A spitfire generally, she really let her true colors come out at the next practice. She guarded aggressively, channeling Michael Myers as she stared into the souls of her poor teammates. My heart grew three sizes as I realized at least one of my children inherited my RBF. At a water break, her teammate reported to her mom, “When they said to get in the other person’s face, Alice really got in my face!”

Alice was in her element, and I felt a strange sense of relief. It wasn’t like the playground where I had to apologize when she started wrestling other kids. Nor was it like the library, where I shushed the girls when they got too rowdy. The basketball court became an arena where my daughters could show aspects of their personalities that aren’t always socially acceptable. And aggression is celebrated.

My heart swelled as I watched both girls test the limits of this world with different rules. I watched as our timid firstborn got closer and closer to the people she was guarding. And we about died laughing as Alice tried to wrestle people for the ball.

I often think of pruning, a parenting metaphor from Kristin van Ogtrop’s book Did I Say That Outloud? While I’ve always encouraged our daughters to be their own unique people, I tried to use my pruning shears on some of their less desirable attributes. But watching my kids at basketball taught me that there are areas of life where it is valuable to maintain traits like aggression, competitiveness, and ferocity. It’s just a matter of knowing when and where. And maybe that is the crux of parenthood: recognizing when a branch can be redirected instead of pruned.

There’s something magical about the chaos of a kids’ team sport. Watching all of the different personalities learning to work together, the joy of a basket made, a rebound, the wild energy of a pack of kids surrounding the basketball. The blatant rule-breaking and the parents shouting advice from the sidelines as if it is an NBA-level game.

On the basketball court, the kids are out there on their own, learning the world as they go, testing limits to find what’s right for them. Sometimes I think I know my daughters better than they know themselves. But again and again, they teach me: I am just a bystander, and they are a world in and of themselves. They are wild and aggressive, kind and generous, intelligent and feisty. And they are perfect as they are.

Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.