On a spectacular spring day several years ago, my nine-year-old son, Jake, and I stepped into an elevator following a routine dentist’s appointment, headed for home. Jake, by the way, is one of those boys who doesn’t like sports, isn’t any good at them, and avoids them at every turn. Moments later, we were joined by a kind-looking man in his seventies. The man looked over at Jake and assuming, of course, that all boys play sports, said brightly, “What a beautiful day for playing baseball! I bet you can’t wait to get out there!” Jake gazed silently at the man’s face for a moment before giving him a weak smile and something that looked like a cross between a nod and a shrug.
It’s not easy being a non-sporty boy in this country—home of the Marlboro Man and seven-figure pro athlete salaries, and where it’s assumed that being faster, stronger, louder, or mightier is always going to be better. By the first grade these boys have already learned that their disinterest or lack of aptitude in schoolyard measures of masculinity is going to set them apart from the other boys on the block. Some navigate the marginalization or bullying better than others, who succumb to years of depression, anxiety, social isolation, and low self-esteem. Things get better eventually, but that’s a long time for a kid to wait on the sidelines.
When I think back to how I tried to help Jake grow up feeling valued and confident in a culture that prizes physical prowess and a macho demeanor, one thing stands out, and it’s this: I talked to him about it, early on and often. The way I talked about it when he was four was different than how we talked about it when he was eight or twelve, but the important thing is that a conversation was opened up, and it allowed us to process his experiences, both the sport and non-sport ones, together.
Processing experiences together with your non-athletic son
Many parents are afraid to bring up the topic of sports with their non-sporty sons, fearing that it will make them feel criticized or embarrassed. But kids feel a sense of relief when parents speak to something they’re both thinking about yet afraid to mention; it’s like the elephant in the room. The conversation doesn’t have to be deep or fancy, and shouldn’t be a lecture – ideally it’s just a way of saying, I’m aware of some of the challenges you face by not being into sports, and want you to know that I’ll help you with this any way I can.
Here are some other things your son will likely appreciate the opportunity to discuss or have affirmed:
. . . what are some things he can do or say if he is getting teased for not playing sports or being good at physical games?
. . . is there an adult at school who is aware that he sometimes is excluded from activities during recess or other unstructured activity periods?
… are there non-traditional sports or activities he’d like to try?
. . . does he feel pressured to play sports by you or his other parent?
… what ideas can you two come up with for discovering things he is or can become good at?
. . . does your son feel that you are doing enough to stop any teasing on the part of his siblings?
… the fact that the whole world is going to tell him all boys liked sports, but he should know that sometimes the world has it wrong.
… that he is a valued and cherished member of your family, and it will never have anything to do with how fast he runs or how many times he scores in a game.
Want to know more? Check out The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.