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On Dads, Daughters, and Raising a Sports Fan

When parenting and sports fandom collide.

Make sure to plop your kids in front of the TV for a good 2 hours straight this Sunday. It's important.

My daughters (ages 6 and almost 8) and I have been watching the Women's World Cup together the past few weeks. And while this weekend is supposed to boast the type of beautiful summer weather perfect for a trip to the beach, pool, or sprinkler park, we're going to spend a good chunk of it indoors, glued to the tube as the U.S. and Japan square off in the championship game Sunday. You should, too.

You see, over the past few years, it's become increasingly important to me to give my daughters the chance to become sports fans, or at the very least to develop fluency in the language of team sports.

As with many a parenting priority, some of the motivation behind this gambit is clearly selfish. I've always been a big sports fan, and many of my happy childhood memories involving going to games, watching sports with others, and old-school fantasy leagues consisting of in-person drafts and statistics tabulated by hand. I'd like to share moments like these with my kids as well.

Indeed, my mental calendar is so intertwined with fandom that even non-sports events are often tagged in my memory by a corresponding game. Like the day my parents dropped me off at college (Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter for the Yankees). Or the first time I visited my future wife at her family's house (Packers vs. Patriots in the Super Bowl).

Now, it's not really this arguably diagnosable level of fanaticism that I wish upon my daughters. But sports–like other cultural diversions–provide a contemporary backdrop for family bonding. Do I want my children to follow in their father's footsteps, tearing up involuntarily whenever the final scene of Field of Dreams airs on TV, even for the 47th time? Not necessarily. But I would like them to be able to appreciate the simple pleasure of the backyard catch with a family member or friend.

The fact that I have girls has only kicked up to the next level this motivation of mine. Not because I believe that absent my intervention, young girls will lack intrinsic attraction to watch and play sports–as I've argued in previous posts, I put little stock in Mars/Venus arguments regarding inborn gender differences in how boys and girls like to spend time. Rather, as I've also written above before, it's my awareness of how others treat my children because of their gender that worries me. As I know from experience, we're still a society in which passersby assume that the infant in the baseball-themed "All-Star" onesie is a boy, then react with shock, horror, and recrimination when they're informed otherwise.

So I'll be damned if my kids are going to be the ones on the playground who keep getting doubled off first base in kickball because they don't grasp the concept of tagging up. Let the gym teachers and the boys in the class do a double take upon discovering that my girls understand when a force play is in effect better than they do. And by the time they're ready for prom, my daughters will be the ones able to surprise their dates by explaining the infield fly rule to them.

[Wishful note to self: that is what my girls will be doing with their prom dates, right?]

Now, I've tried not to cram sports down their throats because parenting has also taught me that the more you try to force a particular preference on your kids, the less successful you usually are. Rather, I just want to make sure they know that being a sports fan is an option on the table for them, regardless of the messages they're receiving from others.

For several years now, I've been taking them to women's basketball games at Tufts, where I work. It's Division III college basketball, which is perfect for young kids. We sit close to the floor in a tiny gym where we can hear everything, from the squeaking sneakers to the talking players to the occasionally yelling coaches (my daughters' personal favorite). My older daughter cares more about the final score, taking it hard when the home team loses; my younger daughter is more interested in bringing a camera to document the action. But we all have a good time, and even on an implicit level, they're learning that playing sports isn't just a "boy thing."

In fact, they may be learning that lesson too well: once when waiting for a restaurant table on a Friday night, one of my daughters caught a glimpse of a men's college game on a TV by the bar. "Daddy," she called to me earnestly. "Look, it's basketball, but..." she paused, perplexed momentarily, "it's boys instead of girls." Happily, I informed her that these days they let men on the court as well.

Which brings us back to the Women's World Cup... You should watch this weekend, along with your kids, whether they're boys or girls. Why?

Because this is a great team with entertaining personalities, worthy of our attention in the same way as other classic American teams from international competitions.

Because this team has already taught my kids an important lesson about perseverance. While my girls hung their heads and whined about the lousy officiating (hallmarks of any true sports fan) in the quarterfinal against Brazil, the players didn't succumb, gifting us instead one of the gutsiest last-minute comebacks of all time.

And, yes, also because they're women. While this squad isn't trailblazing in the way the 1999 Cup winners were–the first women to really break through to national consciousness in a team sport–it's important for kids to see that iconic teams come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and hair lengths.

I'm thrilled that this is the sporting landscape in which my daughters are growing up. As a kid, I had multiple soccer coaches who, as a means of criticism or tough love, would tell us that we were "playing like a bunch of girls." This year's World Cup run provides just one more justification for reclaiming that line as the ultimate compliment.


Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below:

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