A few days ago, I posted one of those knee-jerk updates on Facebook that generated a windfall of replies from my friends and family near and far:
"Why are kids activities so goddamn demanding? THEY.ARE.KIDS. Does water polo (an activity I was considering for my son...was) really need to practice 5 days a week for a 9 year old kid? Gobbledygook."
My son is nine years-old and in 4th grade. He knows how to swim, but he's never played water polo before and wanted to give it a try. Having moved to Southern California from upstate New York, where our winters were typically marked by sub-zero temperatures, dozens of feet of snow, and daylight ending at around 4:00 p.m., the multitude of winter water activities now available to us has been a thrilling change. Swimming in a heated outdoor pool in January is something everyone should experience.
Knowing little about water polo - aside from the rather revealing underwater shots we all witnessed in the last Olympics - I emailed one of local clubs that advertised a beginner level, co-ed, under-10 year-old team. I asked what the practice schedule was like, how many days a week, etc. Here's the emailed response I received to my inquiry. (For brevity and privacy, I've changed certain identifying information.)
Thanks for you and your son's interest in polo...We have a fairly intensive practice schedule, but the coaches are pretty understanding if something comes up (sick, too much homework, another event (i.e., Boy Scouts, piano, etc.). The best thing to do is to bring your son down for a free week to try things out -- if you like it and it works for your family, I'll help you get registered.
Regular practice is as follows:
M/W 6:30-8:00 polo with Coach XXXX
T/Th 5:45-6:30 stroke development with Coach XXXX
T/Th 6:30-8:00 swim conditioning with Coach XXXX
F 5:45-6:30 OPTIONAL stroke development with Coach XXXX
We typically have 2-3 games in a given day (league play or tournament), and will have 1-2 league play events or tournaments per month. The games are very fast, though, as we usually play only 5 minute quarters.
This week would actually be a perfect week try things, as it's the first week of the Spring session. Let me know if you have any other questions, or if you'd like for your son to check it out!
The response was warm, friendly, and I appreciated the forthright description of "fairly intensive." I wrote back a thank you, but declined the offer for a trial run. I don't know about other parents, but for me a four to five day weekly schedule with practices running an hour and a half to almost two hours long on some nights - and until 8:00 p.m. - seems, well, crazy. I understand the need for dedication and practice and drive, but this is the beginner team. I'm afraid to ask what the schedule and commitment is like for the thirteen year-old pros.
I was an athlete as a child - and quite a good one. My freshman year I made the Varsity soccer and swim teams, and by my sophomore year picked up lacrosse as well. I was a natural athlete, but I hadn't been playing in organized sports very long. The oldest of seven kids, I was eleven or twelve before my mom registered me for anything. Eleven or twelve! And they were seasonal sports at that: soccer in the fall and swimming in the summer. But now, that all sounds like a quaint I-walked-to-school-in-the-snow story. If my twelve year-old daughter were to try soccer for the first time, she'd have a rough go of it, because most kids these days begin their soccer careers shortly after birth and play year round without break. They are all budding Pelés.
And yet, one consequence of the underlying - and misplaced - notion that twelve is too late to begin something new is that it stifles the very qualities we want to encourage in our children: exploration, inquiry, adventure. And another consequence is just as sobering: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) overuse injuries - those caused by playing the same sport or activity all year round for years on end - account for nearly fifty percent of all sports injuries to middle and high school students.
Unfortunately, my family is no stranger to the allure of childhood accomplishment. Though my twelve year-old didn't play soccer, she began Irish dancing at the age of four. It was an innocent, once a week, half-hour class that both she and I adored. But eight years later it had expanded into something that swept all of us up in its year-round relentlessness. Conditioning classes, team dance classes, solo classes, and weekend classes. Qualifying for Nationals. Dresses from Ireland. Last summer, my daughter reached her limit. She asked to take a break. At the time, her dance school was beginning to train for a highly anticipated regional competition that would set the dancers on a path to potentially qualify for Worlds - the pinnacle of Irish dancing. She understood that if she took a break at that time, she would lose her place on the team. It was a consequence she was willing to accept. So what could my husband and I say? She lost her spark. She was exhausted. She needed time. And so, we listened and we gave it to her: six months of no dance and no extra-curricular activities outside of school. My son and youngest daughter, who were also taking dance classes - only once a week, however - took a break as well.
At first, the change was disorienting. We quickly realized, somewhat embarrassingly, how much our family's identity - and my daughter's in particular - was wrapped up in Irish dance. If she's not dancing anymore, who are we? It sounds silly, but I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling this way. And I doubt it's limited to dance. When you're shuffling your kids to events and practices and competitions, you make friends. You travel together. You form a clan. Now unmoored from these obligations, we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves.
We were also sad not to see our daughter dance anymore. We didn't realize how much pride we derived from it. We missed our friends. We missed her wonderful, caring teachers. The night of the regional competition, I watched the live feed of the award ceremony on the web. Her team qualified for both Nationals and Worlds. It was difficult knowing that my daughter could have been on the team, had she not chosen to step away.
But slowly, our less-intensive weekly schedule brought new opportunities. We all flew home for my brother's wedding in the fall, something that would have been difficult if the kids had been in dance. My daughter auditioned for her middle school choir and made the cut. We bought a puppy. Though my nine year-old son continued to participate in Boy Scouts - meeting only twice a month - other than that, we had no commitments to any activities from July through December.
It was bliss.
Which is why my water polo inquiry left me so exasperated. I just got off that train. It also filled me with questions. Why? Why are we parents doing this to our children and to ourselves? It's not rhetorical, I truly want to know. By recoiling at the prospect of a five-day-a-week practice schedule, am I cheating my son out of some unknown future gain that I'm simply unable to understand or see at this point in my life? Is there a benefit to raising a highly accomplished child? I mean, what if my child is that child, the exceptional one? The one who makes it into the NFL, to the Majors, to the Olympics, to NASA, to Hollywood, to the U.N. because I gave him that intensive head start and never looked back?
And what happens if I didn't...
The truth is, though, I can't do this. I love my children deeply. I want them to succeed. I believe in their individual talents, and I will do my best to encourage them to live fruitful, happy, and productive lives, but I can't have them in activities that require such demanding commitments from them and from me and my husband. And even if I could - even if I didn't work and had all the time in the day to devote to their extra-curricular schedules - I'm ambivalent about putting such demands upon my young children again, because I'm really not sure what the point is.
What are we working toward?
More than anything, though, I simply do not want their future adult lives defined by their accomplishments as children. I don't want them to peak at thirteen. They have so much more to give than their young, fleeting, childhood ambitions. Ask Lindsay Lohan. Or maybe don't.
Since January, we've slowly folded activities back into our lives. The kids took swimming lessons on Sunday mornings for a few months. My youngest is now in a four-week gymnastic class at the Y on Saturdays. My oldest daughter has returned to dance but only one night a week: no teams, no competition. With little to do Monday through Friday except for homework and chores, we eat dinner together almost every night. We go away on last-minute, hastily planned, sometimes disastrous, weekend adventures. We shoot hoops in the backyard. We ride bikes. We take care of our puppy. We go to bed early. I think we do a lot. I hope we do enough.
But I don't think we're going to do water polo.