Let's talk for a moment, middle-class dad to middle-class dad.
We love our kids. We would do anything for our kids. Which is why we often do crazy, counterintuitive, counterproductive things for our kids. For example, we drop thousands of dollars per year on lessons and equipment for the privilege of driving for hours each week to some all-day "travel league" meet or tournament so they can compete in sports that, if they were not worried about hurting our feelings, they would probably admit they do not get that excited about.
We both know how it is. Organized youth sports: Can't live with them, can't pull the kid away from Titanfall without them. That travel league excursion could be replaced by a trip for Junior and three friends to the local rec center for swimming/pickup basketball/pizza for a fraction of the price and quadruple the familial bliss, but the other dads look at us funny whenever we suggest it. Anyway, we cannot always be the ones making our kids exercise and providing positive teamwork and character building exercise: We are busy working jobs so we can pay league dues and afford comfortable cars for those long tournament trips. The more we suffer, the more they will appreciate it. Right?
Organized youth sports are clearly a double-edged sword, which is why the best thing we can do for our kids may be to do what's right by ourselves. Some sports are far superior than others at meeting the parents' needs: Costs are lower; games shorter; travel expectations generally more reasonable; chances of freezing, broiling or being bored to death in the stands minimized; and so on. It only makes sense to steer our youngsters toward the sports that bring us the least grief. If that sounds selfish, reinvest the travel time into family Scrabble nights and the costs into that college fund you keep raiding for hockey equipment. Feel better?
You may not know which youth sports are best for the typical suburban dad. That is where I come in. Having sampled dozens of youth athletic activities as a parent, a child and (for many years) an educator, I have compiled the following Best-Worst list. Just push your kid toward activities at the top, cope with the ones in the middle and avoid the bottom as if you were being asked to take the kids to that roadhouse in From Dusk Till Dawn. You will thank me, and so will your kids when they see how much less stressed you are!
Safe, accessible, challenging and vigorous for the participants, basketball offers two essential benefits for the youth sports dad: Games are short and they are indoors. Show up at the gym at 5:45 for a 6 p.m. tip-off, and by 7:10 you are walking out with a sweaty, satisfied child while the hockey dads are still shoveling the rink. Summer basketball is often outdoors, but of course summer basketball should be outdoors.
Youth basketball leaves you almost nothing to gripe about. Equipment costs are close to zero, because you need to buy your kid a basketball and decent sneakers anyway. Girls and boys can play together competitively through the early double-digits, fostering positive gender interactions through the dangerous cootie and trainer bra stages of middle school. Small rosters keep all kids involved while also providing some in-game breaks for the weary. I have even seen coaches agree to play four-on-four quarters when winter illnesses shortened the benches! (Imagine convincing two soccer coaches to play short-handed. It's like trying to get a cabbie to take you to Cuba.)
Best of all, youth basketball games start to resemble actual basketball by about the 8-year-old level, when most of the kids can dribble and reach a shortened net. It's about the only youth sport where you might willingly stay to catch the neighbor kid's game. And while stickball in the alley is dead and spontaneous lacrosse matches rarely break out on playgrounds, pick-up basketball is still a thing -- a healthy activity your child can participate in through middle age and beyond.
The downside? As everyone knows, youth sports are just thinly veiled class warfare, with parents aspiring to give their children access to the next tax bracket's preferred sport. Well, basketball is still played down at the rec center near the railroad trestle, and your grandfather ran a lot of numbers for the mob from his pierogi shop to get the family out of that neighborhood. So you may decide it best to leave this exciting, convenient, socially inclusive activity to those who can afford nothing better, and drive past the rec to the country club to instead blow half a mortgage payment on a dressage lesson.
Karate events are short, year-round and indoors, the Triple Crown of youth sports from a father's perspective. Your child gets an hour of vigorous minimal-contact exercise with sprinkled doses of self-control training and multiculturalism; you get a seat on a climate-controlled bench with your Twitter feed or laptop. Many of my NFL Game Riffs are written while my boys practice their forms and front kicks, often during those frosty autumn evenings when my buddies wonder just what besides an alien invasion can cancel a travel-team soccer practice.
Karate requires almost no parental involvement: The sensei really does not want you hovering in the background yelling "keep your elbow up!" The lack of helicopter fathering brings a massive fringe benefit: There are essentially no "karate dads," frustrated black-belt wannabes lingering on the sidelines of sparring tournaments arguing calls or mumbling about their knowledge of elbow strikes. That's because most men my age quit karate at age 11 when we could not execute the crane kick after four sessions; we all quit football and baseball at about the same age, but we didn't spend the next 30 years becoming couch experts in karate.
Karate is expensive, and in some communities it still carries the whiff of burnouts selling old Bruce Lee VHS tapes, fake samurai swords and water bongs at the open-air market on the county highway. But most 21st century dojos offer safe, well-directed, co-ed athletic activities with zero neighborhood politics and no more equipment than you need for football or lacrosse. Both karate and baseball emphasize patience, self-discipline and directed force, but your kids are going to get more out of standing at attention and meditating on the kiddie Tao than blowing bubble gum and killing ants on the dugout bench. And you will not get as aggravated watching them.
Long ago, for reasons that made sense in the Great Depression, little girls were banned from baseball and sequestered into softball, a nearly identical sport that offered few real safety or strategic advantages but ensured that no 90-foot sprint after a groundball ruined anyone for future child birthing. Decades later, most youth baseball/softball organizations still rigidly and fanatically segregate girls at an early age: Some municipalities have tee-ball softball, lest the kindergartners get any funny ideas about tweaking Eisenhower-era gender norms ever so slightly.
As an unintended consequence of decades of gender separation, the girls now enjoy a far superior youth sport. Softball's emphasis on bunting, baserunning and situational strategies keep far more of the players involved in every play. The smaller-dimensioned field is more practical and age-appropriate than the regulation baseball diamond boys start playing on before their voices change. Softball infielders learn rotation base-coverage plays at about the same time little boys master the art of standing around and resenting the pitcher.
Any youth sports dad worth his salt knows that girls' sports reduce rates of teen pregnancy by nearly 54 percent; combine girls' sports with abstinence-based education and that figure shoots up to 52 percent! Little Mary doesn't have to be a flame-throwing underhanded hurler to come home dusty, proud of the swinging-bunt sacrifice that moved a runner along and content to wait a few years before falling under the spells of Miley Cyrus innuendos and boys with mopeds. Maybe our granddads were onto something when they sent the girls to a league of their own, though it may have been that they kept literally striking out with our grandmas.
You drop your child off, he or she jogs away and if you live in a low-crime region, you can feel fairly confident that he or she will return. In between, you do not see your kids, but they do not see you either, so there is no social stigma about reading a magazine, going for a quick jog yourself, or perhaps hitting the bank or pharmacy to take care of a quick errand. Even the kids who come in last get a sense of accomplishment, the exercise is great and the "special equipment" consists of "clothing." Cross country is as close as you can come to not being in a youth league while still being in a youth league. You are paying for your kids to go out and run around town with other kids for a while, and if that's what it takes, it's worth it. The only drawback: Most kids eventually figure out that distance running is absolutely no fun.
As mentioned above, youth sports are aspirational class warfare inflicted on our children, who would rather play gaga with the latchkey kids at the youth center than attend those yachting lessons you sprang for. Since no father on earth aspires to create a young Ralph Kramden or Fred Flinstone, bowling gets relegated to the first-grade birthday parties, then forgotten until the youngster is old enough to crave something to do with his or her hands between pitchers of beer (age 15 or so).
Bowling is bad exercise, but it is better than binge-watching Gravity Falls and not far behind playing right field. There are high school and college teams to aim for, and while waiting at the bowling alley for the kids, you can grab a slice of pizza and bowl some frames. By junior high, a well-practiced Johnny or Mary can probably challenge you to a competitive game, and you could play together in alley leagues from their teenage years through your dotage, a family team that shares the tiny details and simple pleasures of life for decades. But you have bigger goals for your kids, so it's off to the other side of the state to wait for cyclotron time instead.
Just as softball trumps baseball, field hockey obliterates ice or deck hockey when it comes to the father experience. The triumph of girls-only sports may have something to do with the tiny percentage of fathers living vicariously through the events or turning them into small-town political chess boards: The unfilled pro athlete-wannabe dads cannot ruin a sport that they barely notice. Either way, the difference between field hockey and various forms of boys' hockey is the difference between sitting on a sunny autumn afternoon watching Mary grow into a confident, assertive young lady and shivering beneath blankets on a dark December night hoping Johnny was wearing his mouthpiece when he took that stick to the teeth.
Teach your kid to play golf, and you get a kid who likes golf. And of course, you can golf while they are learning golf, or at the very least hang around the golf course and talk to your golfer friends. Your kid will watch golf with you on Sunday afternoons, play golf with you on weekends and drive you home from golf outings from age 17 until age 21, when you both start calling mom for rides again. It's like bowling, only a full tax bracket up and two orders of magnitude more expensive, the latter difference being a sticking point. Your kid also gets a jump start on middle age as a not-so-desirable bonus: You might as well introduce Junior to bran cereals and mortgage refinancing while you are at it.
The 21st-century made-for-suburbia sport: Native American in origin, gender neutral and a whole-body workout. Driving your kids to lacrosse practice is as naturally suburban as purchasing organic coffee at Wegmans. Lacrosse games are timed, so events are short, and they are usually played in good weather. Equipment costs are reasonable, and with a little practice even an uncoordinated dad can figure out how to have a catch with lacrosse sticks. And if you ignore the fact that children are swinging large sticks at eye level while running at high speeds wearing minimal padding, the sport is completely safe!
So sit back and dream of Johnny or Mary earning that scholarship to Maryland. Especially Mary: Lacrosse is a notorious Title IX dragnet, gathering lots of healthy young women into its generous arms to help justify bloated football programs. As a scholarship shortcut for young women, it ranks above tennis and rowing and just below reinforcing the mantra "doing badly in algebra does not make you prettier."
Lacrosse's popularity and demand takes some girls away from field hockey, but many high schools and youth programs now stagger the schedules, so female athletes can play hockey in autumn and lacrosse in spring, with hoops wedged in between. Remember dad: Mary won't have any chance to get into dangerous activities with troublesome boys if she is always recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
I can still remember how proud my father was that his fat son finally found a sport he was pretty good at! Sure, football was expensive, and the practices looked like Marine Corps drill training, but I was finally a starter, and the whole military thing was more feature than bug for my dad.
Times have changed, but football remains the safe refuge of pudgy kids everywhere. It's also integral to American culture in the way baseball thinks it is. Don't deny it: When the quarterback's dad, pitcher's dad and point guard's dad walk into a bar, we all know who gets served first.
So your little butterball gets to succeed, and there is a chance that your family will become civic royalty if Junior starts taking snaps, plus you get to watch football on Friday night or Saturday morning, which is what you planned to do anyway. But there are drawbacks that go way beyond the cost of equipment. As all well-informed parents know, the chance of your child getting a concussion while playing football is 100 percent, while it is 0 percent for all other activities. So the other fathers will treat you like a serial killer while they use YouTube videos to teach their little World Cup stars the proper way to execute a header.
In addition to getting looked down upon by the parents who take their children to stunt dirtbike tracks, you must cope with the Bill Parcells-level expertise of each and every father in your community. All sports have their crazy coach-razzing dads, and some sports have it worse than football (hockey), but I notice the football fathers more because I catch each of their errors. Uninformed baseball dads usually limit their commentary to their strange fascination with the batter's elbow location. Uninformed football dads insist that 80-pound division tykes can master the West Coast Offense.
Yes, watching your child play football is scary -- almost as scary as watching him stand in at the plate against a 13-year old who loses his grip on every third pitch. And yes, the bleachers often sound like the worst comment thread on the worst football blog in Internet history has come to life. But if junior is the kind of kid who likes to slam into things anyway, you'll feel good about padding him properly and pointing him in a purposeful direction. And you get to watch football.
The Latin High Mass of youth athletics: punishingly long and monumentally tedious, yet any attempt to question the status quo gets you excommunicated from the community.
Unless your child is a pitcher, youth baseball requires you to spend hours watching your son stand and watch another child do something athletic. You have not experienced true transcendence until you have spent two-and-a-half hours on a glorious Saturday watching your child stand in the outfield watching the neighborhood superstar walk 14 kids, strike out 19, hit five and scatter a few ground balls that never come within 50 feet of your kid. That's what youth baseball is from the moment boys start pitching until the age when all but the most devoted parishioners give up: a movie-length ritual bearing witness to the awesomeness of the one kid who reached puberty first.
Faced with the crippling obviousness that your child is not only bored and disheartened but actually got less exercise than he would get from a spirited Wii session, you must do one of two things to alleviate the parental cognitive dissonance. 1) You can let your child quit youth baseball, or 2) you can rationalize the experience as some important character-building exercise, adult life consisting mostly of standing around and being disappointed anyway. Besides, being a "quitter" is bad for some reason. Eventually, enough parents choose option No. 1 that the town can form an All-Star team of the leftovers, most of whom were pitchers for the various lower-level teams, and strike off on regional play. The sport becomes fun again for the kids at about the same moment it becomes nightmarishly political and complicated for the fathers.
Of course, if you are the father of the pitcher, you get to spend those endless Saturdays watching Johnny put exceptional pressure on his fragile young rotator cuff in an effort to please you.
The perfect sport for dads who buy their kids the Atlas Shrugged classic comic book for Christmas, tennis provides outstanding exercise while sending an important message: "Teamwork is suitable only for those other, weaker, lesser children. You are an island unto yourself, solely responsible for your success or failure, and since daddy is paying a massive amount of money for court time and lessons, failure is not an option."
Since youth tennis leagues are often centered around country clubs or high-dues recreational clubs, dads at least get to hobnob with the right class of people while their kids learn the most intense and solitary of sports. "The right sort of people" may mean potential business networking connections or middle-aged women with short skirts, great exercise habits and divorced/distant/distracted husbands. Nothing will fill your child with a warm sense of fulfillment quite like looking up from a series of sweaty forehand lobs to see you flirting with the pastor's wife. Did you ever notice that professional tennis players often have strained-to-Interpol-alerting relationships with their fathers? Maybe you should invest in that field hockey stick instead.
Wait around in smelly gyms for hours to watch your little tough guy roll around on a mat smeared with a) disinfectant, b) neighborhood kid fluids, c) virus cultures or d) all of the above for a few minutes! But before you answer (the correct answer is d) there is more: You get to spend the whole ordeal talking to wrestling dads, who were all great wrestlers in high school and plan to breed and nurture the next generation of great high school wrestlers, even if it means cutting the chemistry and music budgets to pay for more mat disinfectant.
Wrestling is cultish and strange, but at early ages it is great exercise and well-directed fun for the kind of kid that is going to come home covered in muck and blood from various sources anyway. But as the kids get older, weight divisions become a major issue, coaches get Machiavellian and the next thing you know your 13-year old is spitting into a cup in a steam room trying to get his weight down to 103 before passing out, then desperately rehydrating and packing protein (Gatorade and two Big Macs) between weigh-in and the match. Such rituals, which many states are trying to curtail, are considered by wrestling dads to be a rite of passage. So is flunking the third marking period.
A fun-house mirror mockery of the late-20th century American Dream, youth soccer is the collection trough for the foulest residue of the suburban acquisition culture. Soccer rose in the 1970s as the grass-roots alternative on the youth sports scene, more inclusive and less martial/macho than the top alternatives of the time. But youth soccer was quickly co-opted and corrupted into the horror show that exists today: Keeping up with the Joneses now requires the most luxurious sedan, widest-screen television and enrolling your kids in the most fiendishly inconvenient travel league possible.
It all starts with toddler soccer, an actual activity recommended by parents who think that 3-year-olds both want and need to learn the fundamentals of team sports -- insane lunatics, in other words. I fully admit to having participated in this public spectacle of parental self-delusion, which consists of one developmentally advanced child kicking the ball all over a cordoned-off mini-pitch while all of the others either pick their nose or cry to their parents to go home. The parents of the criers inevitability return next week because, you know, Junior has to learn, or else he may still be crying during World Cup matches. (My youngest drifted toward "nose picking.'")
After the still-catching-on embryonic soccer and toddler soccer comes a brief sweet spot: Soccer can be fun for parents and kids from about age 7 to 7 ½. Then, all of the good kids are peer-pressured into travel soccer, because what was fun in the neighborhood playground against your friends will be much, much more fun against total strangers after a two-hour Turnpike trip with a stressed-out parent. Those who do not make the travel team are well aware that they did not make the travel team, so they migrate to other sports and kill "town soccer" by about the 10-13 age range, which happens to be the most important time for a young adolescent to identify himself or herself with organized athletic activities.
By the time your child is in junior high, youth soccer has forced you to burn about 14 hours per weekend for the Select Travel League, all the while hoping that your child gets picked for the Select Elite Travel League, which will eat up 18 hours per weekend but will wipe the smug expression off your neighbor the goalie's dad's face. Meanwhile, Johnny and Mary sit in the backseat of the Excursion with the Beats Audio blaring, staring blankly at the anonymous interstate passing beyond the window, suppressing a dim cultural memory of swimming holes, tire swings, secret discoveries along country paths and simple, youthful freedom. They'll thank you for this someday, dad, in the few minutes they do not spend hauling your grandkids from Paramus to Poughkeepsie for a Double Deluxe Elite Travel League tournament in 2035.
Track and Field
Colleague Shaun Powell pitched in on this one. I judged some field events as a young teacher long ago and found them pleasant, but no one in my family has willingly run without being chased by law enforcement or a vicious animal for generations. Track meets feature the most horrible event-length-to-child-participation-time ratio on this list: Your child may compete for less than a minute during an all-day meet. Teammates are only relevant in relays, so no one can bail your child out if he or she has a slight fever or a tweaked ankle, and while tennis gives individuals a 50-50 chance of winning a match, the typical race includes multiple children who are as fast or faster than yours.
For most parents, the track and field experience involves countless hours watching strangers compete in dull events (don't sit there and pretend to be a lover of the standing broad jump), then a few seconds watching Johnny or Mary lose. At least it all takes place on sunny spring afternoons, when the possibilities of doing something more fun and rewarding are limitless.
Avoid at All Costs
Ice, Roller or Deck Hockey
Start with an intensely physical, dangerous sport. Move its season to the dead of winter. Play it on a specialized surface instead of a field, so rink/ice times are at a premium and schedules are tricky. Add the most expensive equipment this side of skydiving. Throw in a macho parent culture that makes football dads sound like chess dads. The result is youth hockey. The puck drops at 8 p.m. on a school night in early January, for your 9-year old.
Some folks from Canada or the far-flung northern hinterlands of states like Minnesota will balk at this ranking: Hockey is their baseball or basketball, the pond freezes on Labor Day, kids (who all own skates) start playing all-day pick-up before the season starts and so on. I don't want to sound dismissive of that culture. The parents of Turkmenistan teach children to train falcons to hunt on the steppes, and it works for them. If you live in an East Coast suburb, subjecting yourself and your kids to extreme cold so they can discover which of the neighborhood pituitary cases has the nastiest crosscheck makes roughly as much sense as making them climb mountains to steal falcon eggs from nests.
Hockey dads inevitably convince themselves that they are toughening up their kids, just as their dads toughened them up so they would be resilient enough to endure watching their children play hockey. That attitude can be tough on an "outsider" dad, who may wonder when we reverted to Ice Age Neanderthals whose well-being depended on sub-zero brutality. If your kids are planning careers as Arctic roughnecks, you can always just throw them outside on snowstorms and order them to hit each other with sticks. You will save money, stay warm and spare yourself the conversation with the guy who thinks you are crazy for thinking that an extreme weather state of emergency is a legitimate reason for postponing a game.
The worst youth sports take the very best things about childhood activity -- running freely, enjoying great weather and the presence of friends, discovering new skills and challenges -- and warp them into an almost spiteful mockery of what they should ideally be. The more structure, limitations, obligations and extremes imposed on the child, the worse the activity is for both parent and child.
So what could be worse than the willful subversion and destruction of a day at the pool? Organized swimming takes the most delightful element of summer and turns it into a grueling ordeal for children, families and the whole community.
If I were looking for a way to cruelly punish a child, I would take them to a glistening pool and order them to hang around poolside for hours, with no freedom to play tetherball or raid the snack bar, so they could perform rigidly dictated strokes in one lane for a few minutes, then get out and wait around again. To increase the sadism, I would make sure that practices began in May, when pool water is icy, and weekend activities started at 8 a.m., so neither sleeping late nor waiting for the sun to warm the water is an option.
If I were looking for a way to cruelly torture a fellow father, I would wake him up early on weekends to drag his children to practices and meets so he could sit beside (but not enter) that glistening pool, lingering for hours until his child could disappear into the water -- where he or she cannot even hear him cheer -- and hopefully emerge as the one kid out of eight who has the incrementally smoother butterfly stroke. Also, I would make registration expensive, swimsuits ridiculously expensive (since they all must be made from Olympic space-age materials) and all the other parents completely insane.
If we are talking about an indoor pool, subtract the sunshine and insert hours of chlorine inhalation instead. For good measure, the pool is always closed to the public for meets, so people with the good sense to think of the pool as a family recreation area do not get the pleasure of using it as such.
Swimming is great exercise, the other parents will insist, and they are right: It is exceptional exercise, as well as a life-saving skill. Your kids can join the swim team; mine will spend summer afternoons either at the pool or the beach. Your kid will win a breaststroke medal. Mine will play Marco Polo, have co-ed diving contests, body-surf and boogie-board through waves, submerge for quarters, toss balls around, battle with Super Soakers and so on. Want to guess who gets more exercise? Want to guess who flat-out swims more? It's like comparing a Babe Ruth league cleanup hitter to the young Willie Mays: The cleanup hitter gets four at-bats against a great pitcher per day, Mays got about 200 against the whole neighborhood in the alley. Oh, and if the Titanic sinks, my kid will be the one treading water and managing the waves while yours decides which stroke would be most appropriate.
Childhood is already too tightly organized, but we can still wring the most joy possible from the ridiculous, exhausting expectations and expenditures of structured baseball-soccer-football activities that have become 95 percent structure and five percent activity. Just don't turn splashing around in the water into another task, for your child or yourself. Skip the swimming league. Talk your kids into summer hoops instead. Then, after a game, jump in the pool with them. You will both enjoy the Father's Day gift.
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Note: Mike Tanier is the father of two boys, including a Soo Bahk Do black belt, and actually has enough of a child psychology background to have some idea what he is talking about. He is also a fat adult who was once a fat child, so some lingering resentment may have subtly crept into his rankings. He is also selling a book that can still make a great Father's Day present!