I remember that before I became a mom I could be caught rolling my eyes at the soccer field near my parents’ house filled with little kids running around on Saturday mornings. I never played youth soccer, and it seemed silly to me to put three year olds in a game and team situation when some of them hadn’t mastered wiping their own bottoms yet.
Then I blinked, and—fifteen years later—there I was on the sidelines for practices and games for my eldest son. We did soccer at three years old and then baseball at four and have generally followed a one-activity per season rule so that we don’t ‘overschedule’ our family. More than a few times, my husband and I would look at each other with mutual wondering about what in the world we were doing. It was chaos out there on the field. One kid’s picking dandelions, one kid’s crying and refusing to get on the field, and one kid totally gets it and takes the ball from everyone else while keeping score of the goals by herself. We’re both athletic people and enjoyed sports growing up, and our son really seemed to enjoy the teams.
This fall, we decided that Kindergarten would be the activity of the season for our now five year old. But, since we were welcoming a new baby to our family and Kindergarten was such a Big Deal, we wanted to do something just for our middle child (then aged three-and-a-half). We gave him the choice of soccer or some other activity that I can’t remember—he chose soccer.
Our coach was incredible. He was kind and played fun games that most of the kids enjoyed. The first practice was great—until it came time to scrimmage. Our son got knocked down, upset, and couldn’t comprehend the concept of trying to take the ball from these strangers (his teammates) and heading toward the goal. After that, our son would have nothing to do with the coach—even though he offered to come early or stay late to play and build trust. It was off.
Now, let me back up to reiterate that I’m a competitive person. Like—very competitive. I’m also a loyal team player, and when I say I’m going to do something? I do it. We tried going out on the field and inviting our son to play with us. He wouldn’t bite. We tried practicing at home. He would kick the ball a little but was not really interested. We fretted about fulfilling our commitment to the team and about setting a precedent of quitting something because we don’t like it. I even asked my pediatrician what he thought about taking our child to the practices and games even though he refused to go on the field while holding onto my legs or my husband’s and crying into our crotches. The doctor’s response was spot on: “Well, if you want him to learn how to kick, I’m sure you could teach him in a different setting.”
Because that’s the thing. I don’t care if he can kick a soccer ball, or whether this is a skill that he learns at three years old. I do care that he respects other people, that he knows that he is worthy of respect (and that we respect him), and that he pursues activities he enjoys throughout his lifetime. Emotionally and physically, he wasn’t ready for the competitive and chaotic environment of a soccer game. He didn’t know what to expect, and he hated it.
And now that I think about it, we signed up for all the wrong reasons:
- We didn’t listen to our kid. Sure, we asked him if he wanted to play youth soccer, and he said yes. But, he’s three and he had NO IDEA what he was talking about. He’d seen his brother play, but now his brother wasn’t on the field (his brother was too old to be on the same team and instead got to play with another older sibling on the sidelines). Plus, our middle child is extremely sensitive. When he gets knocked down or bumped in the head, he runs for a kiss and hug from mom or dad. (All while screaming bloody murder; it’s not my favorite behavior in the world.) The uncertainty of a game situation was unbearable for him. He didn’t know what to do, where to go, where the ball would be, or what everyone else was doing. It was just too much for his sensitive little soul.
Moreover, he’s in that
awfuladorable stage of being a total contrarian. We get gussied up for family pictures, and he won’t get in the frame or sits backwards—or hides in the curtains. Or he decides that now is the time to look through a magnifying glass. Once he decides not to participate, he doesn’t. We generally don’ttry not to indulge him with bribes and attention. It’s slightly more frustrating when he refuses to participate in an activity we’ve paid for and I’ve schlepped the baby and her things, the boys, myself, and the soccer stuff to the field (and remembered snacks for on the way, water for during practice for everyone, and planned how to have dinner ready when we get home so we can all go to bed at a decent time). NOT WORTH IT.
- We did it because our friends were doing it. Most of the time, we tend to be a little different from the norm when it comes to parenting (for example, we have few toys in the house—and nothing that talks or lights up). However, two of our family friends were signing up their kids, and one of the moms was the assistant coach. Part of me definitely signed him up in order for me to get to hang out with them on the sidelines. Fun for the family is fun for the kid, right? Nope—not in this case.
- We equated ‘doing an activity’ with ‘giving you attention and something special.’ Can’t buy love, folks. While my first son loved having us cheering on the sidelines for him, my second son would rather come sit on the sidelines and talk and play with us. He especially wanted to come and sit with his new baby sister and hated that we were telling him—to his mind—to ‘Go Away.’
- Playing a team sport is not child’s play. My little man is an artist and a storyteller; he loves word play and imaginative play. He doesn’t need or want an adult teaching him basic skills he’ll learn from just playing in our backyard with his siblings and friends. I love articles about Letting Kids Play in Unstructured Settings, and yet I wasn’t heeding the advice I readily repost on Facebook. While the fundamentals of youth soccer are seemingly simple, there are tough concepts of teamwork, passing the ball, and stealing that same ball from other people—not to mention physical coordination for which he wasn’t ready. I understand that some kids might get some sense of achievement from learning skills over a season, but I think it depends on the kid—and it probably does not apply to many three year olds. My little man just felt scared, confused, and probably an expectation to perform. I’m a little embarrassed and ashamed that we put him in that situation and then BROUGHT HIM BACK—even though he told us how much he didn’t like it.
- We were afraid he’d be missing out. This was just dumb. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to play soccer or join a team. In general, the fear factor that we need to give our kids every opportunity is just overwhelming when it comes to parenting. Companies know this, and they are adept at coming up with products and activities for kids to do that just aren’t necessary. We don’t need to buy into the hype.
So we quit soccer after the first game, and I only feel slightly bad about it. I learned a lot about parenting my children and will hopefully make wiser decisions in the future—especially when it comes to listening to my kids and trusting what I know about my kids’ skills and talents—and weaknesses. Moving forward, I’m going to carefully consider anything we sign up for and really figure out why it seems more important than time with family and friends or my kids’ freedom to play on their own terms.