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Encouraging Children to Join Sports

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: Every sports season, I go through the same dance with my 13-year-old son. I encourage him to participate in a sport and he's reluctant. Then I sign him up and he initially hates the sport (and me). By mid-season he tells me he loves playing and is glad I made him do it. This has been going on for at least five years. How do I encourage him to take the initiative, rather than having me force him into these activities that he enjoys?

A: I think that your instincts about backing off from this five-year "dance" with your son are correct. While your efforts on his behalf in terms of encouraging him to play organized sports and signing him up have been well intentioned, they haven't helped him to develop a growing sense of autonomy. He's become dependent on you to do things that he's been uncomfortable doing. A child doesn't develop confidence and resilience this way.

By now, he's old enough to understand that his usual "hate the sport and mom" bit is just that: a tired, unnecessary routine that always ends up with his enjoying the sport he was initially reluctant to play. I would calmly discuss with him why you won't play your usual part in this seasonal sports dance anymore. You don't need to blame him or yourself for how you've both behaved in the past. Just state why you think it's unhealthy for you to continue making plans for him and tell him that you believe he's become mature enough to make his own choices about playing sports. Offer him encouraging words about his athletic abilities and how much fun he will probably have playing on junior high school sports teams with his friends.

If he still refuses to sign up for either recreational or school sports teams, ask him why, discuss the situation, and then accept his decisions. Don't get on a guilt trip because you don't do "the dance" again. This year might be a tough one for your son as he learns to do for himself in this sports sign-up arena. But by now, he's received enough positive feedback from coaches and other kids about his athletic abilities to feel a legitimate degree of confidence about his skills. Even if he doesn't welcome the chance to make the transition from dependence to independence regarding this task, you need to give him the opportunity. I'm sure he'll be successful.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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