Along with another dad, Ed coached the soccer team his five-year-old son, Justin, played on through the town’s parks and recreation department.1 The team practiced Tuesday nights at six o’clock and played a game every Saturday morning. Both coaches believed that, win or lose, their aim was to give the kids some exercise, teach them a few skills, and set them free to have fun.
One Saturday, Justin’s mother, Jennifer, began to hear anxious conversations between the families who were seated in the bleachers with her. Tryouts were coming up for a local elite soccer club. Although Jennifer wasn’t convinced that elite was a good descriptor for a class of humans who still couldn’t get all their urine in the toilet, she listened in.
“I don’t really want to pay four hundred and fifty dollars or drive to practices three nights a week or travel to tournaments on weekends,” Jennifer’s friend Amy moaned. “But I feel like I owe it to her.”
And there it was. Amy had spoken aloud what the niggling little voice had whispered in Jennifer’s ear: You owe it to him. He deserves it. All the other kids are doing it. Other parents are willing to sacrifice for their children to play. Don’t be selfish. If you care about him . . .
In their best moments, Jennifer and Ed agreed that sports wouldn’t dominate their family’s life. But in moments like these, that other voice—the one that insisted Jennifer was failing her child because she wasn’t signing him up for elite sports—was pretty persuasive.
Fear and Love
So how do parents of young athletes wade through the sea of decisions about the time, money, and energy they commit to youth sports? The answer many parents would offer—those who are people of faith and those who are not—is that we seek to love our children the best we can. This catchall heart logic is a popular way to reason through any number of choices about our use of time, money, and energy on our children: pricy summer camps, exorbitant school tuition, elite tutors and trainers, and even expensive church mission trips.
But if we’re honest, what masquerades as love is, at times, something else. The voice in Jennifer’s ear that we owe our children some privileged experience, that we are responsible for giving them an extra edge over others or, at least, helping them not to fall behind, disguises itself as the voice of love. And what’s particularly wily about this belligerent little voice for Christian parents is that it has co-opted theological language. The voice—rooted in shame, insisting that our parenting is not good enough—uses ideas like love, sacrifice, and rejection of self-interest to twist itself beyond recognition.
These ideas attach themselves to a modern if-you-really-love-your-child myth that has found some traction in the real stories of our industrious Depression-era grandparents or great-grandparents, who worked their fingers to the bone to provide for their families. We all know these stories—a kindly aunt who sacrificed her pork chop so that a nephew could eat, a father who took on an early-morning paper route to contribute to the family’s well-being. In an era when families struggled to have enough, these loving adults wanted their children to do better than they did. These parents sacrificed graciously and faithfully so that their children could survive and thrive.
But this logic, while noble, isn’t necessarily transferable across generations and circumstances. Many middle-class American families today are not struggling to put food on the table. And many of our kids would be better served eating one less pork chop. More often, for us, the hissing voice insisting that we owe our children a particular athletic experience—four consecutive seasons of a sport annually, an elite traveling team, a personal trainer—isn’t derived from an impulse toward Christlike love. Though we convince ourselves that giving our children everything we can is predicated on love, more often it is built on fear.
We’re afraid our children will fall behind.
We’re afraid they’ll be left out.
We’re afraid they won’t be winners.
Fear, fear, fear.
Janine, the mother of a teenage gymnast and a friend of mine since we were both teenage athletes ourselves, recognizes this pulsing anxiety in her parent peers: “So many people are in such a panic that their kid won’t have a shot at life if they don’t get into the right school or right team or right training program,” she reflects. “I see a lot of people who are completely freaked out about ensuring that their children have access to the kind of professional lives they have, and they’re going to invest any sum in tutors, enrichment, elite sports, and more to make sure.”
That’s not love. That’s fear.
A Different Brand of Love
If we take fear-driven decision-making off the table, we’re still left to identify the signature brand of love that marks Christian parenting. One mark of Christian love is that it is, by its nature, for others. When Jesus names the two greatest commandments, love for God and love for others, he specifies that we’re made to love others the same way we love ourselves (Matt. 22:36–40). The seemingly benign charge challenges our natural human impulse to prioritize ourselves over others. Later, the “new commandment” he gives his followers is to love others the way that he has loved them (John 13:34 RSV). I suspect his followers weren’t able to grasp the depth of the instruction until after his death and resurrection. Then, as they turned over all of Jesus’s teachings in their hearts and minds, through the filter of having been loved by him to the death, hindsight would have illumined their understanding. His words, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44), would have been revivified through the lens of the cross.
If we identify a distinctly Christian love as being sacrificial, many parents could still count the ways they love their children as being sacrificial: One parent loves his child by offering her ten dollars for every soccer goal she scores. Another parent loves her child by going into debt for the privilege of traveling between cities each weekend for travel ball. Another loves her child by leaving work early three days a week to drive her daughter to the gym.
Parents all over the world, from all cultures and creeds, sacrifice for their children. It’s not odd or heroic or countercultural: it’s natural. It’s natural because our children are, to some degree, an extension of ourselves. So when we’re honest, securing every opportunity and benefit for our children is, in some ways, serving ourselves.
So is there anything unique about the way a Christian parent loves his or her child?
The Apostle Paul—who reportedly never paid an athletic fee or visited a concession stand—challenges those who would follow Jesus: “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). In fact, as Christian parents refuse to be bullied by the patterns of this world—those voices that insist we do whatever it takes for our kids to excel and get ahead in sports—we’re able to live in a way that’s distinctly Christian. Specifically, as we become willing to admit that our children are an extension of ourselves and begin to release self-interest, both our own and our self-serving interest to see our children get ahead, everything changes.
What we commit to changes.
How we spend money changes.
How we spend time changes.
As our parenting decisions are guided by love and not fear, and as those choices are ones that seek to love other children at least as well as we love our own—and in some moments even sacrificing the self-serving interests of our own families for the sake of others—we’re at last able to engage youth sports through a distinctly Christian framework.
Walking faithfully in this new way doesn’t mean we should forbid our children from participating in organized youth sports and keep them at home on the couch. Nor does it mean we sacrifice self-interest to the point of scoring points for our opponents. Navigating youth sports through a lens of love for others is much less cartoonish and more nuanced.
If we refuse to prioritize our children’s interests above the interests of other children we might, through a relationship with another child’s parents or pastor, champion a child with fewer resources by getting him registered, outfitted, and transported so that he can participate with our own children. We might challenge and equip our children to invest in weaker players on their teams and in their neighborhoods, helping them to shine on the field the way that they do. We might encourage them to join a team where they can continue to develop a friendship with a child of a different socioeconomic group whom they’ve known since preschool. When a coach hands us our child’s team schedule, we might let that coach know the days and weekends when family priorities, like Grandma’s birthday or the local church mission partnership, will trump team practices or games. Some families might even keep their talented children from playing organized ball, joining a traveling soccer league, or playing during the school’s off-season so that they can give the league fees to feed the poor.
When families allow their Christian faith to inform the ways they navigate youth sports, a host of possibilities emerges.
The Playing Field
Not only should we as Christian parents refuse to prioritize our children’s interests above those of other children, but we should also view the playing field, the gym, the ice, the mat, and the court as the places where the values we claim to espouse on Sundays are lived out both by us and by our children.
As parents, we cheer on the other team’s pitcher who is struggling. We respect the officials, coaches, players, and parents. We skip a Saturday morning game or two to build a house through Habitat for Humanity. We arrive late to a game because we stopped to help a teenager change a flat tire.
We also teach our children how to implement Christian values themselves in the rhythm of play. For starters, we teach them to recognize and reject the harmful values of this world. We teach them not to play through the pain. We teach them that winners are not more valuable than losers and that competitions are not more important than relationships.
In addition to exposing these myths, we also identify the values our families prize, and we help our kids to find tangible ways to live them out. We model generosity by asking them to help us cut up a cold watermelon to share with other kids at practice. We advocate compassion by telling our children that when another player is hurt, from their own team or the other team, they should be the first one there to comfort and help. We teach self-control by instructing them to either keep their mouths shut or shut a conversation down when the gossip train starts to roll. We encourage kindness by challenging them at every practice or game to speak with a kid on the team with a physical or intellectual difference. We foster humility by asking them to accept responsibility for their errors rather than blaming their team members. And we nurture service by telling them to be the last ones off the field so they can secure the goals, gather the equipment, and put away the water bottles.
As Christian parents, we teach our kids that the field, gym, ice, mat, and court are no different from the church, the school, the mall, the restaurant, and the vacation condo: they’re where we live out our faith.
A New Best
Although I have mentioned a number of ways that our love for our children is fraught with self-interest, I believe that love is still the best way for us to make decisions about our children’s engagement in organized youth sports. But that love—Christian love—is more sophisticated than much of what passes today for love. Christian love is incompatible with fear (1 John 4:18), so our choices should not be driven by a fear that our children will be left behind. Instead, we are called to a love that elevates the interests of other children at least to the interests of our children. And, at its best, it is a love that sacrifices for others.
But talk is cheap. Our children will only get it, they’ll only internalize Christian values, to the degree that—in the bleachers, on the sidelines, in the minivan—we practice them ourselves. Do they see us loving God and others by forging an unlikely friendship with a family on the sidelines who doesn’t speak English? Do they notice that when we send in fees for uniforms, we quietly slip the coach a donation to use at her discretion for a family in need? Do they recognize the ways we’re living a vibrant life of love for others, in response to Jesus Christ, after we drop them at practice? Do they see us being for others—even for their opponents or that kid on the team who might steal their spot—in the same ways we’re for ourselves and for them?
As we live out our callings as bearers of salt and light in the world, and as we equip our kids to do the same, they’ll learn, in their deep places, what it means to belong to Jesus. They might even discover the holy surprise of a very unlikely win.