- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 10, 2005

A father recently told me that one reason his 10-year-old son was active in a different sport every season was that “he needs to learn how to be a team player.”

It’s an odd notion — that a child learns to be “a team player” by participating in sports events in which the level of adult involvement effectively eliminates decision-making on the part of the children.

Like many American families, the one in question spends a significant number of after-school and weekend hours carting two children, soon three, to team sports practices and games. In the course of all this driving and cheering, the family consumes more time than it spends in any other family activity — except that watching a child play a sport and cheering from the sidelines does not constitute a family activity. A picnic is a family activity, as is a nature hike, an afternoon spent in a museum, or a trip to Niagara Falls or DizzyWorld; watching a child play a sport does not qualify.

A family also is engaged in a true family activity when everyone pitches in to clean the house, weed planting areas or plant a garden that will help put food on the table. Sadly, few of today’s families can be found doing those sorts of things together on any sort of regular basis. What with all the after-school sports and activities in which the children are involved, not to mention homework, there’s just no time.

I contend, therefore, that many children are growing up without an adequate sense of what family really and truly means. They know what the word team means, but they do not know that one’s family is the greatest team to which one can ever belong and that membership on that team is the best of all ways to learn how to be a team player.

A child learns how to be a family-team player by having a meaningful role, constituted of meaningful responsibilities, within his family.

By the time the child is 4 years old, for example, his parents have assigned him a daily routine of chores that contribute to the cleanliness and orderliness of the family environment or even help sustain the family’s standard of living.

In the course of performing his chores, he learns that his role in the family is important, that he has value within his family. In response, he develops a sense of personal dignity (not the same, by the way, as self-esteem), attaches importance to his family and begins to bond with the values the family holds dear. That is the “right stuff” of learning to be a team player.

Unfortunately, most of today’s children are making no meaningful contribution to their families other than their presence, which means, more unfortunately, that the only role today’s children play in their families is that of consumer. Another way of saying the same thing: In today’s all-too-typical family, the only persons who are acting as if they have obligations are the parents.

The problem with this one-sided state of affairs is that consumption without contribution inevitably engenders a feeling of entitlement, the feeling that “I deserve.” Under the circumstances, individualism and materialism rule, hobbling the development of more functional pro-social values as well as a valid sense of self-worth. The child so hobbled ends up feeling OK when he is getting what he wants and not OK when he is not getting what he wants.

Thus, the ubiquitous effort to make children happy is putting them at risk for becoming perpetual malcontents. It no doubt has played a significant role in the steady rise in the rate of child and teen depression since the 1960s when “you can go outside after you’ve finished your chores” began its slide into obscurity, to be replaced by, “Hurry up, we’ve got to get you to football practice on time.”

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site, www.rosemond.com.

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