Balls and Baked Ziti

As I do on occasion, a few weeks ago I put out a request on Facebook for suggestions for blog topics. This time, I asked grandparents what would be of interest to them. Most of the suggestions I received were about navigating the sometimes tricky mother-in-law – daughter-in-law relationship. I have been thinking about this and doing some research and promise to address this topic in a future post. One of my friends, who is about as lovely a human being as I have ever been blessed to know, responded with the following:

I would love to read your thoughts on how competitive sports, especially all those travel teams, are impacting family time. – Penny

Unlike the first topic, which I have little direct experience with given that my mother-in-law and I were separated by 6 states and if she had opinions about my parenting (which I am certain she did!), she kept them to herself, Penny’s topic is near and dear to my heart both as a mom and as a family therapist. Based on my experience in both of those roles, here is what I have observed.

Little kids play on intramural sports teams. These teams practice once a week and have one game a week. Pretty reasonable. By the time the athletes get to be in the later elementary school years, there is pressure to make it onto a travel team. If the athlete is talented, the pressure may come from coaches. Sometimes the pressure comes from parents or peers. Kids figure out pretty early that they are being sorted into two tiers: the “real” athletes and the “casual” athletes. My clients often have less benevolent names for the latter group. Who wants to get stuck on a team full of dorks or losers? Kids who don’t make travel teams often opt out of sports altogether. Maybe they weren’t that interested. Maybe their bodies are not developing the “right” way for their sport. Maybe they have developed a passion for theater or robotics and there simply isn’t time to do it all.

Travel teams tend to have more practices, and games are longer propositions because they are not right in the neighborhood. Some games and many tournaments require overnight hotel stays. I remember the ignorant bliss I felt when my son reached middle school and joined his school’s teams. I assumed this meant the end of travel teams. Alas, I quickly learned that in order to keep up with the other athletes on his teams, he had to do both school sports and travel sports! What had been a busy schedule during the K-5th grade years, all of a sudden got even busier.

I am a big proponent of organized sports. Kids learn essential life lessons when they are members of a team: how to collaborate, how to compete, how to win, and how to lose. They learn about hard work, commitment, and reaching goals. Sometimes they are coached by excellent role models who teach them the best lessons sports have to offer. Sometimes, they learn about dealing with jerks and they learn about nepotism. In today’s screen-driven world, they get regular exercise and, depending on the sport, fresh air and sunshine. Sports can be a great point of connection for parents and kids. At their best, sports can really empower kids who struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self-confidence.

But, here’s the rub. I, and all the other professionals out there who deal with kids and families, are also proponents of family meals. If you aren’t familiar with the research on family meals and outcomes for children, I strongly encourage you to visit the Family Dinner Project’s website here. Briefly, regular family meals are associated with the following benefits for children:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
  • Lower rates of obesity

Research also tells us that a lot of delinquent behavior takes place in the hours between the end of the school day and dinner time. After-school sports keep kids involved in positive social and physical activities during those hours. Add to that all the above benefits of family meals, and it is easy to see how both organized sports and family dinners set kids up for success.

So how do parents reconcile the benefits of participation on sports teams with the importance of regular family meals? Creatively, that’s how. Here are some suggestions that parents of busy athletes can use to minimize the negative impact of sports on family life:

  • Make family meals a priority. If you have to eat earlier or later than usual to accommodate a practice or game, that’s okay. If it’s been an especially busy week with few family meals, then sit down together for an extra meal or two on the weekend. While the research has focused mostly on dinners, I am fairly certain just as much good stuff can happen over a plate of pancakes and bacon as burgers and fries. Limit discretionary social plans that interfere with family meals.
  • Keep family meals relaxed and upbeat. Even if you have brought work home from the office, linger over a family meal as long as your kids will sit at the table. When our kids hit the tween years, my husband and I vowed that whenever possible, we would not be the ones to end dinner; we wait for one of the kids to ask to be excused because he has a lot of homework or because her boyfriend is going to call soon. Don’t ask about grades or homework over dinner, and don’t deal with behavioral issues. If kids know that a family meal is not a time that parents will address problems, they are much more likely to hang out after their bellies are full.
  • Listen more than you talk. Ask more questions and tell fewer stories. If your kids are talking, make eye contact, listen reflectively, and ask occasional open-ended questions. It’s okay to share, but what makes family meals so enjoyable for kids is the full attention of their parents. Avoid lengthy conversations between parents which can be real yawners for children.
  • If not everyone can be present because of outside commitments, whoever is home can still enjoy a family meal. Don’t think of a family meal as an all-or-none endeavor. I have enjoyed many very engaging and lengthy meals with just one of my kids or with my husband and one child. For a child with siblings, what could be better than the undivided attention of both parents!?
  • On occasion, make the sporting event a family activity. This has to be done judiciously to minimize the risk of upsetting siblings or causing friction between the athlete and his or her sibling(s). Go as a family to the 6pm game, for which the athlete likely has to arrive at 5pm. Then, go for a quick dinner on the way home. It may not happen at the kitchen table, but it still counts as a family dinner and creates an opportunity for connection.
  • Make family meals electronics-free zones. Park the cell phones and tablets and hand-held games in another room. Ignore the house phone if it rings. Whatever it is can wait until dinner (or breakfast or lunch) is over. The value in family meals comes from connection and conversation, neither of which can happen if there are frequent interruptions and distractions.
  • Unless the kids are really bogged down with homework, engage them in meal preparation and/or clean up. Kids learn important life skills when they help with cooking and cleaning up. Pre-meal and post-meal activities also lengthen the time of family engagement. Let the kids play their music during the before and after activities which you may not enjoy but will make the time more enjoyable for your kids.
  • Be willing to say no to coaches. The best coaches keep sports in perspective and understand that players will have to miss an occasional practice or game because of a heavy homework load, a family event such as a birthday or wedding, or a school or church event such as a jazz band concert or choir rehearsal. Some coaches penalize kids for missing practice by not allowing them to start in a game or by reducing an athlete’s playing time. Don’t let your kids play for highly punitive or critical coaches, and accept the limits set by the more reasonable ones. If a kid sits on a bench a few extra minutes because he attended a wedding or a religious service, so be it. That kid is learning to keep sports in perspective.
  • Be willing to say no to your kid. Say no to a practice, game, or tournament when something more important conflicts. This is a toughie, one I am debating about at this very moment. Is Mother’s Day a good enough reason to tell my son he can’t play in this weekend’s basketball tournament? Am I willing to take a rain check on our annual Mother’s Day traditions? I am not sure what I will decide, but what I am clear about is that parents who make the commitment of time, energy, and money to enable their children to participate in league sports must be willing to say no to some practices and some games and stick with their “no,” even in the face of their kid’s anger and/or disappointment.

I just proofread this post and realized that this whole time I have been writing about family meals when Penny’s question was actually about family time. I almost hit the delete button and started all over, but then I realized that my comments still make sense. By the time kids are old enough for travel teams, a lot of family time has already been lost – to school, to homework, to viola practice, to electronics, to trips to the mall, to hanging out in the neighbor’s basement media room. Family meals provide the best opportunity for family members to connect, without distraction, on a regular basis. Family movie nights, hikes, bike rides, board games, etc. are also great, and, by all means, keep doing all of those things whenever possible. And, since everyone has to eat, make the very best use of mealtime as frequently as you can.

For more on this topic, check out these earlier posts: Values. There, I Said It and My Most Unpopular Post to Date.


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Balls and Baked Ziti

  1. I don’t have kids, but I work with kids as a tutor and homeschool instructor. One of the big concerns I have with sports (ballet, violin, etc.) is that when children start to get good, and the family starts to invest a lot of time, money, and energy in their extra-curricular pursuit, the child can begin to feel as if they are loved for their accomplishment, not for themselves. As an outsider and an adult, I see the parents working hard to support their child’s interest and talent as a way to express their love for their children, but children don’t always have the perspective to understand this. In the circles that I teach in, this is mostly a problem with ballet and music, not sports, but it’s really the same issue. My feelings about this are pretty complex. Who wouldn’t want to support a young person who has the talent and interest to pursue something hard at a high level? But on the other hand, it feels awfully messed up for an entire family to revolve around what are essentially recreational activities.

  2. Dr. Sayers says:

    Your comment rings very true, Jessie. Thanks for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comment. You might also be interested in these posts: Different and Delightful ( and The Kid You Got (

  3. Pingback: Questioning vs. Criticizing | What Kids Want Us to Know

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