Ask the Experts: Getting Kids to Participate in Sports

How parents need to approach the importance of sports with their kids

Q: I would like my child to play a sport for the social and fitness benefits, but she’s not really interested. Should I force her to play?

A: Let’s start with the easy part: The American Academy of Pediatrics says all children need to exercise an hour a day. Parents have the medical establishment behind them when they make a rule about family exercise.

This hour fulfills multiple goals. If your child plays a team sport, they are in nature and exercising, and team cooperation helps them with social and emotional learning. I tell parents to start with a high goal: From ages 5 to 18, your child will be exercising an hour a day, hopefully on a team. Like children with weekly religious obligations, that’s all they know: They participate in the service every week. It’s like dental care. Kids might not like it, but they are taking care of their teeth and exercising every day. There’s no room for parental ambivalence or defensiveness.

Of course, there are qualifiers, because life is complicated. Your child will probably not exercise 365 days every year. You will miss a season for some reason. But if you start your child young, you might avoid some of the middle-school pushback.

Another qualifier involves shy, anxious and avoidant children. The hyper-reactivity in the emotional centers of their brain makes them novelty phobic; doing something new is like seeing a saber tooth tiger. Don’t opt out, though. Parents who are familiar with the research on these children know the key is to gently nudge (no forceful pushing) their children into trying new things.

Finally, your child can pick what they want to play, but they don’t get to choose not to exercise. Children can chose not to participate in team sports. Your child can try martial arts or tennis, for example.

Parents need to feel really confident that they are doing the right thing by making their children participate in athletics. Then parents have to do the dance and negotiate the specifics with their children. 

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