When my son Liam was in kindergarten, I asked the boys what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jacob answered quickly with his usual, “marine biologist,” but Liam paused.
“A grandpa,” he finally said. “That looks like fun. I want to be a grandpa.”
While I knew that eventually I would need to break it to Liam that grandparenting was not a viable career choice—especially right out of college— I could completely understand why he said what he did.
At the time, my father (the grandfather Liam saw most often) was in his early sixties and newly retired. He played on two over-55 softball leagues in the summer and a bowling league in the fall and winter. He ran three miles a few days a week, and often showed up at the boys’ soccer games on his bike. When the boys visited my parents, it was grandpa who provided most of the entertainment—taking them to the playground for a game of tennis, football or strikeout. To Liam, being a grandpa was the perfect job — deliver Meals on Wheels a few days a week, go to daily Mass and spend the rest of your time playing sports.
While 10-year-old Liam is now old enough to understand he can’t skip over young and middle adulthood and jump right into retirement, his comment has stuck with me. Since that time, my dad has dropped his bowling league, but has added two hours of competitive table tennis to his weekly schedule. He’s 68.
While Liam doesn’t know it, his desire to be a sporty grandfather has helped to shape decisions Bill and I have made about athletics and our children. Jacob, 13 and Liam are reasonably good athletes, but so far have not been the star of any of their teams. While many parents of children the same age as Jacob and Liam have their kids on competitive, traveling club teams, we have chosen not to go that route.
And part of the reason is we want them to be active grandpas.
Specializing in a sport at age 10 may put a child on a path that will be more likely to include a spot on a college team, but studies show it is also more likely to lead to sports injuries at a younger age. It also contributes to a family lifestyle that is built around sports schedules and can’t-miss tournaments. I suspect it can also cause some children to over-define themselves — “I’m a soccer player; I’m not good at basketball.”
Right now, in the U.S., children and sports seem to be having a moment of polarization. On one hand are too many inactive children—obesity and Type 2 diabetes are on the rise as too many kids eat chips and play video games instead of going outside for neighborhood touch-football or tag. On the other hand are children as young as eight and nine practicing four days a week and crossing state lines to play in tournaments against other third and fourth graders. These kids don’t have time for tag.
While the parent of an unusually gifted and passionate athlete has a responsibility to make sure their child receives proper guidance and coaching, gifted athletes are rare. Examination of data of high school athletes reveals that only about five percent of them go on to play NCAA sports — in any of the three divisions. Less than one-tenth of one percent of high school athletes go on to play professionally.
While it sure would be fun to be the parent of Michael Phelps or Nastia Liukin, the fact is that most kids fall somewhere on the athletic spectrum between “pretty average” and “doing really well.” And even among the kids doing really well, I question whether their club team is so incredibly exceptional that they need to leave a metro area of a million people to find another group of kids their age who can give them a good game.
In parents’ effort to give the best to our children in all things, we may be losing sight of what the goal of athletics should be. With a few exceptions, we don’t need to be grooming kids for collegiate careers when they haven’t yet lost all their baby teeth. Instead, let’s look long term. Will Jacob rather swim or play baseball after work when he’s 30? What sports will my daughters Jamie and T have time for when they’re forty-something moms? Will Liam rather go running or biking when he’s sixty? For all of my kids, it’s too soon to call it, so I won’t even try. I’ll just sign them up for one more sport through our local recreation department. And maybe someday, their children’s children will watch them and say, “I want to be a grandpa when I grow up.”