For the kids

Published 11:02 am Monday, June 5, 2017

by Andrew Book

We live in a world today where kids are struggling to truly thrive more and more. A brief review on the state of American kids reveals that children today have higher rates of mental illness (with a stunning sixfold increase in depression since the Great Depression), have a lower life expectancy than their parents, and are more likely to be obese or overweight than children a generation ago. I could continue on to look at statistics about the number of young people who are forced to work multiple jobs to cover expenses and many other areas which are impacting young adults as well. The data shows that, by and large, children today are more likely to struggle to thrive than children have been for many years.

Now, contrast this to the experience many of us have with parents who seem to shape their lives and priorities around their children. It would seem like the number of families who are doing much of life “for the kids” would push the numbers in the other direction. Certainly, those families who are truly prioritizing the needs of their children do see higher rates of mental health and other indicators of life lived well in their kids, but there is another reality at play as well: parents sometimes confuse what our children truly need to thrive with those things we want for them.

A good example of this division is what has happened in youth sports over the last few decades. Youth sports have increasingly pushed kids into specializing in one sport early on, joining travel teams in elementary school that require high levels of commitment, high expectations for performance, large requirements of time, and discouraging youth from playing other sports.

Studies have found that this trend is, by and large, not a healthy one for the children involved with skyrocketing levels of injuries due to overuse, high levels of performance-based stress and, most surprisingly to me, a 70 percent dropout rate of kids who are unwilling to continue in these sports. Overall, participation in team sports (and the many benefits of team sports) in this country has actually been driven down! As Outdoors magazine summarized, “It goes without saying that sports are good for kids. Participation in youth sports improves self-esteem, teaches sportsmanship, encourages safe risk-taking, and builds healthy bodies and brains,” but in many cases sports specialization at a young age pushes kids away from sports rather than toward them.

Despite the negatives associated with sports specialization at a young age, the business of travel teams for young kids continues to boom. The reason is often not because it is “for the kids,” but instead participation is driven by parents who want to see their kids excel, be “special” and strive for that elusive college scholarship. Kids surveyed care much less about being “elite” and winning than their parents — they just want to play and have fun with their friends.

It turns out that what kids want from team sports is what they need for their mental health as well. lists these “basics for a child’s good mental health: unconditional love from family, self-confidence and high self-esteem, the opportunity to play with other children, encouraging teachers and supportive caretakers, safe and secure surroundings, and appropriate guidance and discipline.”

Insofar as a sports team is offering those things, the team will probably be a good place for nurturing a child. On the other hand, if a team places high amounts of stress on kids, tears down their self-esteem, and critiques rather than encourages them, those teams are going to hurt them.

Another rule of thumb that I ran across as I was researching for this article was this: “The general rule is that they should never be involved in more hours (per week) of organized sports than their age” to help keep kids from injury and over-involvement.

Travel sports are one avenue that involved parents can overwhelm their kids and, in the long run, hurt them, but it is certainly not the only one. Parent expectations for high levels of performance in any area can be equally damaging — especially if the child has come to believe that their parents’ affirmation and encouragement hinges on their ability to perform.

So, if you are a parent, take a long hard look at the expectations you are placing on your children. Are they appropriate? Are they truly going to help your child to thrive?

As a pastor, I am a bit biased, but when I read through the list of things needed for a good mental health, I see a lot of areas where a good church community can play an important role in each child’s life. If you are a parent, I hope you can find the kind of community that your child needs in order to thrive. If you are looking for that kind of community, we would love to have you come join us at Courtland United Methodist Church!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or