There was time in my childhood when my parents thought soccer lessons were a good thing. They secured me a spot on the local team, and I got a t-shirt.
I was not opposed to this plan because I had observed that children who play on soccer teams are often given treats after the game. Sometimes, they even get taken to McDonald’s.
The coaches put me in the back corner near the terrified goalie because I didn’t understand what it meant to “be more aggressive with the ball.” Being more aggressive with the ball meant getting kicked in the shins, and I was no fool.
We lost every game.
Even so, I came away with the idea that being involved in a sport was a good thing. It develops character. You learn how to lose. You learn how to win. You build friendships and practice cooperation. You learn how to cope when you get pneumonia from standing in the freezing rain for two hours while your teammates fight over a ball they could very well share.
When I had my own kids, my husband and I did the same thing. We got our kids involved.
Only, things had changed a bit since I was a kid. Sports involvement had become an expected thing. If you are a half-way decent parent, you enrolled your child in a sport. At least one. Per season.
If you don’t, you must be Amish, and if you’re Amish, people don’t know how to talk to you unless it’s about furniture.
When a neighbor found out my four-year-old didn’t play baseball, she offered to drive him herself. I had just given birth to twins, so my lack of initiative could be forgiven, but clearly an intervention was in order. “We’re not really into activities yet,” I said, bouncing two boys on my lap. “I kind of want him to enjoy playing at home, being a kid.”
“But he’s four!” she responded with a look that made me feel like he was thirty-six and still living at home with his cats. “What does he do?”
I looked around. At that moment, he was driving his cars around the kitchen island with his sisters. They were sharing. Cooperating. Learning to work together. Building relationships.
Eventually, I got my act in order. I found something for those kids to do. My husband and I lugged equipment and traded kids and sat in dark parking lots and ate the fast food we said we didn’t eat and wrote checks and wondered if it was too early to look for product endorsements because dang, sports aren’t cheap.
My children were parsed out into different groups based on age and sometimes even gender because kids of different ages and genders don’t play together, Silly. My children became spectators to their siblings’ games instead of participants.
Some weeks, we spent every night away from home. We ate in the car or in the stands and did homework in hallways. I spent more time with my minivan than I did with my husband. We dragged sweaty kids home and sent them to bed too late and woke them up, cranky, in the morning. I choreographed our weekends so well, I felt like a dance instructor.
All so that my kids could be involved in something they would likely never, or rarely, do as adults.
“Mom, do we have to go anywhere today?” became their new mantra.
Then one day, I sat by my computer to register the kids for another semester of sports and music and church events. My dog-eared calendar sprawled out in front of me, covered in so many pencil marks, it looked like it was about to undergo cosmetic surgery.
My bank account wheezed.
I didn’t know how to make it all happen, and I felt exhausted at the thought. I did not like this life, this activity-driven life. I did not want to waste my motherhood in the carpool lane, and I did not want to watch my children live out their childhood on a field.
I realized I had been buying into a lie that busy is better, that activities are normal, that an interrupted family life is worth it if my kid can swim. I was teaching my children that they should grab as much good stuff as they can, instead of waiting for what is best.
And isn’t that the very thing I was trying to un-teach myself in my adult life?
Soccer is good. Football is good. Swimming is good.
But so is catching fireflies. And building tree forts. And playing tag and capture the flag and hide-and-go-seek. It is sweet to win the Little League Championship. But it is delicious to spend a whole Saturday morning in your pajamas with a book.
When hours of the week are spent on sports, I wonder what is lost. I wonder if we can ever regain the value of unstructured time, that margin in life where kids can play, imagine, talk, explore, and create. The childhood that is full of secret codes and catching stuff and getting dirty. The childhood where dinner time is around a table and the fridge is covered in artwork the kids did that Saturday because they could.
I am not against sports. Please don’t misunderstand. I do not drive past the soccer fields on Saturday and hurl insults at the parents on the sidelines. I get it. Respect, soccer moms.
It’s just not for us. Not now. Our family culture has different priorities, and I’m comfortable enough in my motherhood now to accept the fact that what’s expected for most children to do is not the best for us.
It’s not the best use of our time, and it’s not the best use of our money.
That might be different for you—but if you are reading this and your soul cries out because you are so tired of hauling your kid to some activity you wish you could quit—oh, there is grace for that too. You can stop. You do not have to do any of it, and your child will turn out just fine. Hear me: he will be just fine.
In our home, we now spend nearly every evening at home, except Sunday. We linger around the table because there’s nowhere better to be. Then we get on the jammies and gather for family devotions. We sing. We pray. There is no rush—the words can slip in slowly if they want.
Saturdays are lazy, and I make pancakes. Last weekend, the kids built a fort out of plywood and an old side table they scavenged from a dumpster and logs from our wood pile. It is an eyesore to the entire neighborhood, and it is glorious.
Faith made Kya a crown from a palm tree, and she wore it around looking every bit like Pipi Longstocking until the wind caught it and almost blew her into New Mexico.
They played a Monopoly game for three days straight, and one of them cried when she lost, and I had to remind her that not everyone can win every time. Or if you’re like my old soccer teammates, not everyone can win ever.
But Jeff went out and played with them, and then friends came over with a football. The wound was soon forgotten.
The kids picked up the entire house, vacuumed, dusted, folded their laundry, cleaned out their dressers, dusted, took care of the pets, managed the dishes, and straightened the bathroom.
The five of them negotiated whether to play on the iPad for ten minutes each or watch a movie, because this mama won’t let them do both. Jeff made popcorn. When it was over, Kya read bedtime stories to the boys.
Sometimes, people ask me how my children will grow into adulthood without a sport to teach them all the things sports are supposed to teach them: Cooperation, sportsmanship, hard work, diligence, patience, practice, and teamwork. Won’t they feel jilted because no one ever stood on the sidelines and cheered for them?
I smile. They are gaining all of those skills, and more, just without the t-shirt.