We seem to have progressed now to the new-bifocals nausea stage. I thought I wouldn't have it this time around, having had five years to get used to a line in my line of vision -- so to speak. But either my new glasses are making me sick, or my vitamins are making me sick, or something I ate is making me sick, or I'm just sick. Whatever the reason, I'm taking the opportunity of school's being done for the day to sit very, very, very still and think about other things. And so this post is a catch-all for the flotsam and jetsam in my mind today, which is more flotsamy and jetsamy than usual. If you can imagine such a thing.
First: sports. Or, if you like, sport as a concept. This isn't something I write about a lot, because it isn't something I think about a lot. We are not a very sporty family. My husband played football from elementary school through his junior year in high school, when he blew out his knee, acquiring scars that make wearing shorts an invitation to total strangers to ask, "Man, what happened to you?" As you might imagine, he hasn't been too invested in grooming any of our children to play football. Our older son played YMCA soccer for a couple of years, when he was seven and eight, and it was fun, but not that fun. Our younger son, at four (okay, I'll admit it now: we were idiots), was for a brief time listed as a member of a YMCA team and went so far as to consent to get up out of the grass, where he liked to lie, and sit on the bench and drink Gatorade with the rest of the kids. "Gettin' some fluids into the man," his coach said with what I still think of as a generosity of enthusiasm. The same child later went to a three-day baseball camp sponsored by our local parks and rec, and for those three days he was speaking in tongues with happiness, but when I asked him whether he wanted to be on an actual team, he said, "Nah," and turned away with a shrug to try to persuade his sister to go out back with him and play baseball. She said, to the best of my recollection, what both our girls have always said about sports participation: "Not today."
Lately, though, I've been thinking about organized sports as I haven't done for a long time. Our older son is a ninth grader, and his ambition is to go to West Point, for which he shows every sign of having the grades and the leadership experience, but not so much the access to organized team sports that would look . . . familiar, I guess, and readily comprehensible . . . in his application dossier. This is not to say that he's not doing sports, mind you. Over the last two years, he has made a runner of himself; he began by training for the YMCA 5K fundraiser that happens every December almost literally in our front yard, and with the passage of time this training has evolved into an elaborate self-imposed fitness regimen including not only running but sit-ups, jump-squats, weight-lifting, and I'm not sure what all else. I've just signed him up for a YMCA class -- do you see a theme emerging here? Where would we be without the Y? -- which will train him to compete in the Spartan obstacle/mud race in March, and his friend Andrew, who also likes to run, has just sent him information about another mud race in April, so there's another competition on the calendar, something to quantify, a little, what he's doing essentially to prove to himself that he can.
So I've already determined, in my mind, that when the time comes, I can say with a clear conscience that he has "lettered" in a sport, though I'm not entirely sure what to call it, other than Running and Stuff. What seems important to me is the spirit in which he pursues this sport, not so much for its own sake as for the sake of his larger goals, and for the virtues attendant on self-discipline. It's far less about external competition than it is about a battle with the self, for mastery.
I've come to be depressed about the role of competition in activities available to children: in sports, obviously, but also dance, for crying out loud. Every dance studio in our small downtown displays a row of trophies in its front window, as if that were what you were looking for: "No, I want the winningest ballet studio in town, thank you." The primary function of ballet, or tap, or jazz, or whatever the studio offers (usually they offer a a little of everything and then some) apparently is to be the gateway drug to beauty pageants and cheerleading. No, thank you very much. Not today. Our youngest daughter takes Irish step dance from a woman (also our parish DRE) whose troupes don't compete, but perform in nursing homes and at cultural festivals. They're beautiful, wonderful dancers -- and they're in it for the fun of dancing and performing, not to be better than anyone else, which was what we wanted for our daughter. Dance keeps her moving; furthermore, it brings joy to her life without being her whole life, which is the role this kind of childhood experience ought to occupy.
In light of all this, it was with interest that I opened the latest issue of Mater et Magistra magazine, dedicated to sports in the life of the Catholic homeschooler, and after an initial read-through, I wanted to share what I think are highlights.
From Matthew Davidson, Ph.d, on what's unhealthy in our youth-sports culture:
In alarming numbers parents and coaches are ruining sport for kids by applying too much pressure, too much training and competition, too much specialization (i.e., having kids concentrate on one sport from year one in hopes of a competitive advantage).
Too many parents and coaches see sport (and unfortunately their kids) as a means to an end -- championships, scholarships, and a professional career in sport, in spite of the fact that [this focus] often leads to kids hating sports . . . and it rarely leads to the ends those coaches and parents desire so badly.Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Barrett, Ana Braga-Henebry, and MacBeth Derham take up the theme of stepping outside the youth-sports box in the pursuit of lifelong habits of physical fitness: family biking, swimming, and walking, for example, or . . . wait for it . . . leaving kids to their own devices, to make up their own group games. MacBeth writes,
The other day I passed a few children playing around a tree in the churchyard. They had encircled the tree and were singing a song. I stopped for a few minutes and watched, wondering why it was such a captivating scene. Then it occurred to me that in our neighborhood, with plenty of families, I rarely see any children outside playing unless they are in a soccer field or baseball diamond. I recalled another image -- one evening at the beach, the homeschooled kids gathered for a disorganized game of beach baseball. They recruited other children to play, to the astonishment of their parents. Is it so unusual these days that children participate in informal games without coaches? I hope not.I hope not, too. Or, rather, what I hope is to build, or maintain, or preserve, a corner of the culture in which these things have room to happen.
Finally, it's the feast of St. John Bosco, who always seems to me one of the most irresistible of saints (okay, he was a good-looking Italian guy . . . that certainly doesn't hurt . . . ), a man who gave his life to understanding and educating boys. His vision of boys happy in his Oratory seems a fitting note on which to end here:
Valfre then showed me the boys just as they were at that time, the same features, height and so on. It seemed to me that I was in recreation in the Oratory of those days. Everywhere I looked there was life, movement and joy; some were running, some jumping, some skipping. Some were playing leap-frog, some tag, some with a ball; in one corner was a huddle of boys hanging on the words of one of the priests as he told them a story; in another corner a cleric was playing with a group of lads. There were songs and laughter on all sides, Brothers and Priests everywhere and the joyful cries of the boys around them. It was perfectly clear that the greatest cordiality and confidence existed between the boys and their superiors. I was overjoyed by the sight and Valfre said to me: “As you can see familiarity breeds affection and affection breeds confidence. This is what opens hearts; the boys can open up without fear to their teachers, assistants and superiors. They become frank both inside and outside the confessional and in general they show great docility to the commands of those of whose love they are sure.”And now, new-bifocal nausea or not, I need to go be in the midst of my children, to foster some great cordiality and confidence, for the sake of Don Bosco today.