Values And Sports - PART I

We've all heard that team sports are excellent for our children in many respects. They can help build team work, self-esteem, and confidence. Children's gross motor skills and coordination improve. They can learn the value of working together with others for a common goal. Sometimes they must put aside personal "glory" for the sake of the team. All of these are valuable attributes. But what happens if your child suddenly comes home spouting every four letter word in the English language?

"My son plays roller hockey, and until recently, he seemed to be enjoying it a great deal. But as the season has progressed, he's come home spouting fouler and fouler language. I started thinking about the behavior I'd seen in adult hockey games, and I suddenly became unsure if this was something I wanted my son exposed to."

Foul language seems to be a fairly common offshoot of the camaraderie that team sports seek to engender. Boys, in particular, appear to be more prone to using foul language in order to bond with, or to be accepted by their team mates. This leaves parents in an awkward predicament. Most parents would prefer that their children's language remain "clean." At the same time, no parent wants to see their child ostracized from his peers because he's not seen as "fitting in." So where do the boundaries get drawn? What can you do to curtail this behavior?

Some parents choose to speak to their child's coach, which is not an altogether bad solution. At the same time, most coaches probably have their hands full, and are trying their best to keep things like foul language to a minimum anyway. So while expressing your concern to your child's coach is an option, it's best to understand that you'll probably meet with only limited success.

I believe that the ultimate solution lies between parent and child. It requires open communication, and perhaps a slightly flexible attitude which leaves room for some compromise.

First and foremost, I would suggest that as the parent, you have the right to set limits for the kind of language which is acceptable in your home and to enforce consequences for breaking those limits. Many parents successfully link "clean language" to responsible behavior. When the child can act responsibly in the home, he is allowed greater freedom and privileges. On the other hand foul language, or irresponsible behavior, leads to the taking away of the child's freedom or privileges. For example, a parent might say that unless the child can be responsible about his language, and act appropriately for his age, he will be treated as a younger and more irresponsible child might - going to bed at an earlier time, having his allowance lowered, or losing some of his television privileges.

The ability for you to dictate what happens in your home is likely to be successful. What happens when your child is on the playing field, however, is slightly different. For one thing, limits are harder to enforce because you might not be at all of the practices or games, so truly knowing what goes on will be difficult. It is in this area that open communication can help your child understand and internalize your values and eventually make responsible choices about how he will behave.

Many parents believe that their values about foul language (or anything else for that matter) will somehow be absorbed by their child through their day to day living. The truth is that it's important to have conversations with your child about this kind of thing on a regular basis. Try sitting down with your child and mentioning that you've noticed a change in his language since he's been on the team. Verbally recognize that this kind of language is one way that team members may be trying to connect to or be accepted by one another. Ask your child's opinion about why he or the others use foul language, then truly listen to his answer. Try not to contradict him - you stand a better chance of getting your point across if he feels he's gotten his across. Remember that he may be defensive at first, especially if he's not used to having open communication with you. Keep the lines of communication open by refraining from either attacking his values or getting defensive yourself. The key to this type of conversation is to open and leave open the lines of communication. Many parents react as though every communication is an emergency, and try to force their values on their child in the first ten to twenty minutes they spend talking about a particular topic. Values take time to internalize, and often children need to hear them repeated often, and to experiment some before they're willing to take them on. Remember that during this conversation, even if you fail to recognize it at the time, your child is listening to you and absorbing what you're saying.

Another helpful tool during this type of discussion is Mary Pipher's "sandwich technique" which I've mentioned in a previous article, but which bears repeating. Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, recommends that a good way to express your values to your child lies in sandwiching them in between two positive statements. In this case it might sound something like this: "I really appreciate that we can have an open communication about topics like this. I, personally, feel uncomfortable with foul language because I think that it doesn't really accurately express our thoughts, and that it can come across as rude to others. I know that you'll make a good decision on this, though, and find a way to achieve some balance during practices and games." Because the bulk of this statement is both positive and encouraging, the parent's value can be expressed without it coming across as overly critical and thus something that the child needs to rebel against.

Next month we'll look at another way in which sports may be influencing your child, and what you can do to help your child derive the most from his sports experience without taking on negative values.