A cheer for playing the game

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

I'M a Little League mother of the worst kind. I admit it. If the sport requires a uniform and is organized for kids, I let mine sign up for it. Then I go to all the games and cheer until I'm hoarse. I wear photo-pins on my coat showing the kids in their uniforms. I put in more miles chauffeuring them to their athletic events than a Greyhound bus driver, and I bake hundreds of cookies for fund-raisers so I can then go to the bake sale and buy the cookies back. Especially in the fall and spring, when some of the sports overlap and the kids wind up with schedules that would stagger a political candidate, I worry about all this busyness. When I was an amateur child expert -- that was before I actually had any -- I criticized my friends who allowed their children to become ``overcommitted.'' When, I asked, do the children get to be kids? With all that organized activity, how do they learn to use their own resources? Where do they find the time to lie on their backs and watch the shapes of their dreams drift by?

Now that I have two children of my own, I'm not so sure that if the kids had more free time it would be used for reading or interacting with friends or even daydreaming. I think the time would be spent at the mall playing video games, or parked in front of the TV to an accompanying chorus of (my chant) ``Can't you get out and do something besides stare at the tube?'' and (their chant) ``We're bored, there's nothing to do.''

I can't even use my own childhood experiences as a guide to how they should spend their time. My children live suburban lives in the 1980s so unlike my own rural childhood in the late '40s and '50s that if we weren't related to each other, we would have nothing in common. My parents didn't even have a television, while my children are bombarded with pictured messages urging them to buy, to spend, to consume, and, most important of all to the people running the television station, sit there and don't mov e.

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My husband and I want our kids to be physically active, because we think it's good for them. But physical activity isn't all that easy to find in our intensely developed suburb. The fields, woods, and barns I played in are simply not there.

Team sports seem to be an easy answer. Everything's already in place. All we need is an equipment list and a map telling us where to go. I know that some of the parents who enroll their children in team sports will accept nothing less than winners as children. There are a few parents like that. I always try to find out who they are so I don't inadvertently sit next to them and wind up listening to them yell at their children.

But most of the parents just want their kids to enjoy themselves. They know their kids don't have to be the team's most valuable player to have fun and to contribute -- even Reggie Jackson couldn't win the game by himself. I have found team sports to be among the few places this society tells its children that they don't have to be the best to play the game.

While standing out in a playing field watching the kids hit a ball around was not what I had pictured myself doing when I quit my job to stay home and take care of them, I don't mind when I think about how much the kids get out of it: fun, exercise, and a whole lot more.

Right from the first day when they had to decide which sport they would play, the kids were learning skills they would use the rest of their lives. As an adult woman, I'm still trying to recognize the point at which enough becomes too much, while my kids have already discovered they can't do it all. Baseball, soccer, wrestling, football, swimming, basketball, gymnastics -- something has to give. They're learning to set priorities before they're even teen-agers.

I'm not really a big sports fan. I've gone to professional games with my hus-band, and the thrill for me has ranked right up there with having my tires rotated. But I do enjoy the kids' games and even their practices. When I see Brian skate, fall down, get up, and skate again; when I see Alison shoot at the basket four times, finally succeeding the fifth time -- I know they're learning something valuable: that they can do better by trying again. I know of little else besides spelling drills that s o specifically teaches them that.

They're also learning to finish what they start. Goodness knows I don't always manage that, but I want my children to do better than I do. That's why in every sport before the season starts, my husband and I issue our standard ultimatum: Once they start, they cannot quit. They owe it to the rest of the team to finish the season out. We insist on that because we know that when our son and daughter discover two weeks of practice won't make them superstars, they will want to quit. It happens every time. Th en about halfway through the season, when their playing improves, they will become enthusiastic again. We figure that, even though sometimes we are the ones who are persevering, the feelings of confidence and self-worth that come from not quitting will help the kids see themselves as people others can count on. That's an easy step toward being that kind of person.

People laugh at me at the kids' games because I tell them I don't care who wins, as long as my kids don't lose. And it's true. That's how I feel about it. I hate to see my kids disappointed. I would protect them from every blow life has if I could, but I wouldn't be doing them any favor if I did. They should learn about winning and losing while they're still young enough to listen when they're told that both are temporary conditions -- a part of life, not the end of it. When they grow up, they wil l do a lot of both and they'd better learn how to survive winning and losing as soon as they can. I can help them because I've learned something, too -- when you're a Little League mother, you find out right away that there's always another game.

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