About a decade ago, I went to an independent movie theater in New York City to watch Go Tigers!, a documentary about the people of Massillon, Ohio and their obsession with their high school football team. I thought the film was well done and an interesting look into why anyone would care so much – in many instances, too much – about the exploits of teenagers on the gridiron. Go Tigers! opens in, of all places, a hospital. A woman, who has just given birth to a boy, is visited by a Massillon football coach and a member of the team’s booster club. After some idle chit-chat with the post-partum patient, the coach and the booster put a miniature football at the foot of the infant boy’s crib. We then learn that every newborn baby boy in Massillon gets a similar visit and a gift of a miniature football. How could you place such expectations on every boy – and the parents of every boy – in your town, I thought. Children should be allowed to discover sports organically, that way they’ll only play or watch if they truly love the game.
In June, 2010, my girlfriend and I welcomed Elena into our lives. The first child for both of us, we were excited to meet the young lady who’d been hanging out in my girlfriend’s womb for over nine months (Elena apparently enjoyed that womb immensely – labor had to be induced to coax her from her cocoon). Now, at almost 14 months old, we’re still learning about Elena’s personality and her likes and dislikes, a process that will continue for as long as we’re alive. We’re also getting a better idea of how Elena will look as she gets older. Her height and weight, relative to her age, have been in the highest percentiles since she was born. One of the delivery room nurses mentioned that Elena’s femur, or thigh bone, was longer than the average newborn’s, which means she will likely be tall. Myself and many others have noticed that Elena’s feet are rather big in proportion to the rest of her body. So, preliminary signs point to Elena developing into a tall female. Elena also sucked the thumb on both her left and right hands her first few months, causing my girlfriend and I wonder if Elena is ambidextrous (now she rarely sucks her thumb and, when she does, it’s almost always the right thumb). Elena was just two months old when I sent the following text message to one of my friends:
“I’m going to have to teach her how to dribble and shoot with both hands.”
I was half-joking. But, I started to wonder, how serious was my other half? Was I already placing unreasonable expectations on her? Whatever happened to letting my child’s interest in sports develop organically? She may not even like sports, let alone basketball.
That last thought bothered me the most. I love sports. Heck, I talk about sports for a living. How in the world could I possibly have a child who doesn’t like sports? As she grows up, I want Elena to enjoy reading. I want her to be interested in and cognizant of the world around her. I want her to be respectful of others and to always say “please” and “thank you” at the appropriate times. I want her to speak clearly and confidently. But, I also want her to enjoy sports. I want her to play sports, preferably ones I know well, like basketball, or baseball, or softball, so I can teach her the fundamentals and basic ins and outs of the game. The title of this post is derived from something I recently told my girlfriend; I don’t want my daughter to throw like a stereotypical girl. I want to teach Elena how to properly cock her arm back, elbow up, and throw a ball straight and with the proper amount of strength. I want her to enjoy watching sports, preferably sports I enjoy, like baseball, basketball and football. I want us to be able to share sports and to be able to talk about sports, just like I did – and still do – with my parents.
The fact Elena is a female doesn’t change my desire for her to like sports one bit. My mother is a big fan of the NBA and of tennis, capable of breaking the strengths and weaknesses of players and teams down to the smallest detail. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve my mother and basketball – watching the New York Knicks’ deep playoff runs in the early 90s, going to Knicks and New Jersey Nets games at Madison Square Garden and Continental Airlines Arena, respectively. I’ve also been the play-by-play voice for a few different women’s college basketball teams. Getting to know the female players and mostly female coaches on a personal level and watching them perform up close has given me a tremendous appreciation of the skill and artistry possessed by females in athletics. I also know women are capable of being talented athletes and/or avid sports fans while retaining their femininity, if they so choose. So, the idea that Elena is given a pass regarding sports because of her gender doesn’t wash with me.
Although my girlfriend has gotten more interested in and become more knowledgeable about sports in our nearly five years together – largely because she’s with someone whose personal and professional life revolves around them – she didn’t play sports growing up and readily concedes she’s unathletic. As a result, fairly or unfairly, I’ve placed the burden of molding Elena into a sports lover squarely on my shoulders. However, I don’t want to be overbearing. Many people are turned off by specific sports or by sports in general because they were force-fed them growing up, definitely a fate I don’t want Elena to suffer. So, how can I strike the right balance?
Recently, I discovered Elena likes my basketball. One day, I put it in her lap while she was in her car seat. She carefully ran her tiny fingers along its grainy texture and succeeded in pushing it with both hands. One day at the park, I gave her the basketball, sat across from her and tried to get her to roll it to me. Elena didn’t quite understand what I wanted her to do, choosing to keep the ball instead. I’m going to get her a smaller ball that may be easier for her to roll and work on getting her to push it back and forth with me. Once she masters that and also masters walking, maybe I’ll try to get her to bounce the ball with two hands, and then with one hand.
Since I work most evenings, I’m rarely home to put Elena to bed. My girlfriend usually sings a song to Elena as she lays her down in her crib and she recently wondered why I didn’t do the same the handful of nights I put her down. The only song I could think of that a) is appropriate to sing to a baby, b) I know all of the words to and c) I can sing reasonably well with my terrible singing voice is Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the baseball standard. After I read her a bedtime story, I begin singing as I pick her up and continue the song once I put her down, usually singing it twice. I even got Elena a children’s book that includes the words to the entire song (Take Me Out to the Ballgame actually has two verses and a chorus; the part that’s usually sung – and the part I’ve been singing to Elena – is the chorus). I really hope it’s one of the first songs she learns all of the words to and is able to sing herself.
By exposing her to a basketball and to Take Me Out to the Ballgame, I’m slowly indoctrinating Elena into the world of sports. How much more I intentionally expose her to will depend on how her interests develop. Maybe she’ll never appreciate sports in the same fashion I do, but I want her to understand how important sports are to me and that they can be fun to play and follow. One day, she may fall asleep with a football (or a baseball, basketball, tennis ball or volleyball) at the foot of her bed; I just don’t want to be the one who forced her to put it there.Follow @raford3