Helping Children Choose Sports & Extracurricular Activities

Elementary school-aged boy playing baseketball outside

In 1974 Janine Cinseruli, along with 19 other girls, filed lawsuits against Little League Baseball. Their complaint? They werent allowed to play because they were girls. Little League officials claimed the girls werent strong enough to play and would suffer serious injuries. Eventually the officials relented in the face of rising legal costs. Changing the law was hard work, but changing public opinion was even harder. Cinseruli and her family endured hate mail, insults, and nasty telephone calls.

Weve come a long way since then. Girls have been playing Little League baseball for 40 years and most of us have forgotten the days when girls were expected to sit on the sidelines. Any doubts about girls in Little League and their ability to keep up have been dismissed by players like Mone Davis, the 13-year-old pitcher with a 70 mph throw. In 2014, she became the 18th girl to play in the Little League World Series.

Today, both boys and girls have more after-school and sport opportunities than ever before. If a child wants to play a sport, sheor hecan. Discrimination on the field has become less common. However, gender stereotypes with children linger and some extracurricular activities are still considered more for boys or more for girls. It is still less common to see boys who take ballet and girls who participate in ice hockey, for example.

Another common problem is that children may feel pressured by adults to participate in activities that dont really fit them. Our culture loves sports, but what if your child isnt the athletic type? What if your son wants to play chess instead of hockey? Its natural to feel some disappointment when our children dont embrace a path weve chosen for them. When were able to rise above that disappointment, though, we give them a precious gift: our unconditional acceptance.

Tips for Helping Kids Choose Sports & Extracurricular Activities

Below are some tips for keeping a healthy balance in extracurricular activities.

  • Think about your childs interests and natural abilities. If you were the star football player or a prima ballerina, you probably have dreams of your child following in your footsteps and choosing the same sport or extracurricular activities. These dreams might come trueor not. Try to really "see" your child. What does she want to do? What are his natural gifts? Parental expectations that dont match with a childs true self can cause a lot of grief for both parent and child. Another common issue is that of peer pressure. Parents feel peer pressure just as children do. Perhaps all the children in your familys social group play lacrosse, but your child has no interest. Do you force your child to play or do you find other ways to connect with family friends?
  • Offer gentle guidance. At the same time, if you notice that your child is consistently choosing after-school activities that are typically associated with children of the same sex as your child, offer gentle guidance but dont push. Suggest that your "artsy" daughter try karate or that your "rough and tumble" son try chorus. You might even look for something outside of your childs comfort zone that you could try together, such as signing up for father-daughter ice skating lessons.
  • Consider your priorities. Its easy to get caught up in the excitement of youth sporting events or cultural performances, but keep an eye on the big picture too. What do you want your child to gain from an activity? Do you want these activities to help build friendships, physical fitness, self-esteem, work ethic? Many different types of extracurricular activities build these abilities. Running and karate, for example, are great forms of exercise for a child who doesnt love team sports. By keeping the big picture in mind, youll avoid tunnel vision and can more readily embrace your childs choices.
  • Try new activities and sports. By the time children reach middle school and high school, theyve usually settled on a few sports or extracurricular activities that they excel in, but dont force this process too quickly. The early elementary years are a great time for children to explore a variety of activities. Try several sports through inexpensive recreational sports leagues. Join a childrens choir or sign up for art lessons. Through experimentation, parents can help children find the activities that theyre passionate about.

Gender inequality on the sports field is less common than in the past, but children still face stress and pressure when it comes to choosing sports and extracurricular activities. By putting your childs needs first, you can ensure that these experiences will be truly positive and beneficial for the entire family.

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Elementary school-aged boy playing baseketball outside