Why I Let My Son Watch (Some) Sports on TV

by Carrie Howe February 09, 2016

Its Sunday afternoon. Superbowl Sunday to be exact. My husband is in the garage laying out recycled pallet boards planning the wall he will finish off in our basement. I am working on my freelance writing while thinking about how to create a label for my lip balm made from our beeswax. My six-year-old son is watching the LA Clippers play the Miami Heat on the basement TV. One of these things is not like the other? While my husband and I played sports when we were young and encourage our kids to do the same, we're not big professional or college sports fans. We may joke about your Yankees vs. Red Sox household, but I can't remember the last time we actually watched more than 10 minutes of a baseball game. For us, sporting events are usually limited to The Olympics and the occasional play-off or World Cup game. So it has come as a bit of a surprise to us that our son likes to watch sports on TV. It doesn't seem to matter which sport - today was his first basketball game, but he was hugely into World Cup soccer and will watch most other sports when given the opportunity. I will admit that some of the draw for him is just the sheer pleasure of watching TV. We're those parents who limit screen time to Friday night movies and the occasional PBS show. So when he does get to watch TV he zones out like he's watching the moon landing or someone has cast a spell on him that blocks out all external stimuli. But there's something different about watching sports. He's not that passive zombie. Instead, he's interacting with what he is watching and with the people who are with him, and he can re-enter the world around him more smoothly than after other screen time experiences. Here's what I think is going on:

First, he's active.

He's a competitive kid so he enjoys cheering on "his team" (usually whichever team is winning when he turns on the game). He moves around in his seat or stands up and jumps up and down just like the adults who are really into a game, cheering when his team scores, waving his arms as they are getting close, and grunting when they are scored upon. Moving his body instead of sitting in a trance on the couch keeps him from zoning out completely on the screen.

Second, he's doing math.

My son loves math and is always asking us to give him math problems to solve. When he is watching sports he is constantly talking about the score - which team is winning and by how much. We talk with him about what it would take for the other team to catch up and he learns how many points are awarded for each kind of goal, basket, touchdown, etc.

Third, he's learning some pretty complex rules.

He doesn't quite understand why a soccer goal is one point but a basket is two (or sometimes three). He wants to know why the whistle is blown or what kind of penalty was called. He wants to know who we are rooting for and why, or why they wear those kinds of sneakers or cleats. Luckily we know enough to answer most of his questions. We can sense his brain processing new information, and we hear him describing the game as it progresses using the new terms he has learned.

Lastly, he is witnessing sportsmanship (at least we hope he is) and learning that everyone loses once in a while.

Being the competitive kid that he is, he takes losing hard - whether that's in a board game or on the baseball field. We try to point out when players help each other up after tackling each other or shake hands after a match. And when players aren't sportsmanlike, he usually sees them get called on it. Y You should have heard the conversations about the soccer player who bit another player during the men’s world cup; that was not ok and he knew it. So despite my personal lack of interest in most professional sports (except for women's soccer - cause those women rock), I don't mind that he likes watching. That said, we do have two parental rules of thumb (both of which were confirmed by the Superbowl that happened later the same day):

First, we are cautious about football.

More than enough brain injury research has informed our decision that he will never be allowed to play, so we hesitate to have him exposed too often to the sport. Yes, I understand that other sports are also dangerous and do result in concussions, but most studies still list football as the most dangerous sport (see this summary by the CDC if you’re curious) and professional leagues seem to have a long way to go in making players' safety top priority. In addition, the sport seems ripe for unsportsmanlike conduct and sore losers, despite the many well-intentioned players that I am sure are part of the game.

Second, we try to supervise and, when needed, intervene or distract during commercials and halftimes.

Why so much sex, beer, and violence has to go with sports is a topic for another essay altogether. To put it another way, Parental Guidance is still required. No doubt more questions will arise as he gets older. But for now we’re appreciating his innocent one-man cheering squad and listening to him enthusiastically describe his favorite play of the game, even if we're sitting right next to him. Who knows, maybe he'll rub off on us.

Carrie Howe


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