High school graduation is the exclamation point marking the end of childhood. It is the final punctuation for one’s childhood story. For the young graduates, it is an overwhelmingly joyous occasion for good reason: their life adventures are just beginning.
For parents, however, the emotions are more complex. Our kids are beginning a new chapter–one where they are the authors, not us. In these new chapters, we will remain characters, but not necessarily the main characters. Because this is the time for our kids to begin writing their own life story.
When a child graduates, this is also the time that parents metaphorically re-read the first chapters of their kid’s story. The ones when we were the authors.
It’s so much easier to see the childhood plot twists that we got right and wrong when we re-read the story. Many of the plot twists were intentionally written into the story, but others just crept in along the way.
Parenting Performance Review
My daughter, Riley, graduated last month. Since she is my youngest, my nest will be officially empty in less than two months when she leaves for college. Like many empty-nesters, I am now carefully re-evaluating my job as “parent.”
It’s a long list of Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda.
I know my husband, Dale, and I made plenty of mistakes. If you don’t believe me, just ask my kids.
On one road trip, in a Hail Mary effort to engage them in conversation, I asked the question:
Tell us about a time that we messed up as parents?
Now that’s a conversation starter! After an hour of parental failure anecdotes, Dale and I told them to go back to their devices.
Despite our long list of parental fails, there is one thing that we got right in their childhoods:
We chose family travel over sports.
Did I just hear a collective gasp among readers everywhere? Sports are practically a religion in many places, including the Deep South. To choose anything over sports is akin to heresy in many circles.
So if you are a fully satisfied sports-centric family, please stop reading and head on to the soccer field or dance studio. But don’t worry…this isn’t about bashing sports. There’s no doubt that sports offer many valuable life lessons, opportunities, and benefits.
However, if your child doesn’t really like sports or is struggling to find their “thing” (when all of their friends seemingly already have), then let me offer you some encouragement from a mom who has been there.
Middle School Sports
I will never forget middle school basketball tryouts. Delaney had spent Kindergarten through 6th grades playing rec league basketball and softball. She loved everything about it–the coaches, camaraderie, and competition. But rec league ends in 6th grade. Beginning in 7th grade, players must tryout for the school team or a club (travel) team.
The week of middle school tryouts, Delaney spent every afternoon participating in after school clinics. Tryouts took place on Friday afternoon with the coaches posting the results on the school doors that same evening.
After dinner, Delaney and I drove to the school. In nervous anticipation, she barely uttered a word on the way there. Once we arrived, she instructed me to wait in the car. I watched as she walked toward the school entrance, reaching the door at the same time as another girl. Their eyes and fingers quickly scanned the newly hung roster. My heart dropped as both girls burst into tears.
Yet they were crying for completely different reasons.
Tears of devastation still streamed down Delaney’s face when she returned to the car.
“I made it,” she sobbed as she climbed in.
That’s when I knew: Delaney didn’t love basketball. She enjoyed basketball (and softball) in the low-key, rec league sort of way. But she certainly didn’t enjoy any sport at the level that is required of today’s youth beyond rec league play, and she knew it too.
Finding Your Child’s “Thing”
I was exasperated. Every one of her friends had a “thing.” No one was ever available to just play anymore, because they were all committed to doing their thing. Every. Single. Day.
I wanted Delaney and Riley to be involved with something that they enjoyed, but they really just wanted to play or hang out after school without scheduled commitments.
Now maybe you’re thinking that we didn’t try enough “things” for our daughters to find their passion. I’m pretty sure we did. Our girls participated in the following activities for at least a season:
- cross country
- figure skating
- baton twirling
- harmonica (Dale deserves bonus points for finding a harmonica instructor for a 7 year old)
It’s not that they didn’t like any of those activities, it’s just that being involved in any of those activities required more time or interest than they were willing to commit.
They were willing to participate in 1980’s-style sports: two practices a week; a game on Saturday; a three month season. The end.
Sadly, low-key rec sports opportunities are dwindling fast. Families struggle to find sports opportunities that don’t become all consuming. Some children have private coaches before they can even read chapter books. There are fewer and fewer options for children (and families) to play sports AND have a life. It’s either-or.
Saying NO to Sports
So rather than jumping on the sports train along with everyone around us, we opted out. Instead of spending our evenings, weekends and breaks traveling to fields, gyms and studios near and far, we explored the world.
In other words, we said NO to travel sports, and YES to travel.
Our family travels (including two sabbaticals) have taken us to nearly 40 countries across six continents, exploring the world’s greatest adventures and cultures. None of which would have been possible had we sacrificed our calendars and wallets on the altar of the sports gods.
The decision wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though. If you have school-aged kids, then you know that their extracurricular activities are often synonymous with their social groups. It can be a struggle for them to find their “people” when their name isn’t on a roster.
My daughters have now closed the chapters on their middle school and high school years. Despite some periods of loneliness or feeling like they didn’t always have a group, neither would trade their worn passports to have been MVP-of-this or Captain-of-that.
In other words, my daughters’ inability to find their “thing” turned out to be an unexpected gift for our family. Our experiences have taught us that family travel is better than sports in many ways. Following are just a few of them.
4 Reasons Why Family Travel is Better Than Sports
1. All family members participate in the travel experiences.
In sports, typically one family member is the player and the other family members are spectators. In travel, everyone is a player. Family members share in the “wins” (like snagging a budget room in Sydney for New Year’s Eve), and the “losses” (like being deported from China).
2. You’re creating lifetime family memories.
Shared family travel experiences form bonds that last forever. Each trip creates distinct family memories that can be revisited over and over, as opposed to a long season of games/competitions that all run together in the end. I’m certain our daughters will never forget taking Bollywood dance lessons with their dad in India!
3. All family members are the stars.
Families (with more than one child) involved in travel sports are faced with two difficult choices: 1) drag along the other child(ren) to the games/competitions, causing them to miss out on activities of their own (often resulting in long term resentment), or 2) use the divide-and-conquer method of parenting.
Over the short term both options can work, but neither is ideal over the long term. With family travel, one child’s sport isn’t placed on a pedestal at the expense of another child.
4. Travel is an expense that benefits everyone equally.
According to numerous articles and anecdotal conversations with parents, travel competition sports can easily cost $6,000-15,000+ per year, per sport, once all expenses are included. As a result many families make huge financial sacrifices for one child to participate in club sports. For the same amount of money, the entire family could experience a life-changing global adventure.
While there are countless life lessons that can only be learned as part of a team, there are just as many life lessons that can only be learned outside of your country and culture. Family travel is the greatest teacher of these life lessons.
If you are lucky enough to parent a mediocre or apathetic athlete, embrace it! What better way to add plot twists to your kid’s childhood than to stop collecting participation trophies and start collecting passport stamps?
The world is waiting for your family to join their team of global citizens.