|Image via Gangway Advertising. The chances of being an NBA All Star whose picture gets displayed on the side of a building are about two in a million.|
Last week I had one of those horrible parenting moments...the ones where you wonder whether or not you've scarred your child for life, knowing that someday there will be a therapist listening to her blame her mother for long-term issues stemming from that day of that moment when she said something awful.
Maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe it didn't scar her for life. Maybe it was a valuable lesson.
Am I just talking myself out of the significance of it all? Did I crash her dream or give her a needed reminder of the realities of life? I guess only time will tell.
What did I say? Well...some words just bubbled out that I'd been thinking about for a long time. My thoughts are all jumbled up because of sports--sports in my house, sports in the news, sports sports sports everywhere. Add that to the fact that my eyes are always seeing the influence of race on society (once your eyes are open it is impossible to close them) and you have a recipe for pre-teen dream crashing.
Here's the gist:
My son plays a lot of sports. As a preschooler he wanted to grow up to be a superhero, but when he realized that there weren't really web-slinging mutants in real life he decided to go for the next best thing: being a professional athlete. In the United States, professional athletes are iconic heroes, showing their guts on the field and living in glory after the game. From age 3-7 he played soccer and studied the Japanese martial arts of Aikido and Shinkendo. At 5 he started tee ball, which morphed into full-fledged baseball (this season he signed up for one team, but was invited to play on two others.) At age 7 he started flag football and now has two years of full-contact tackle under his belt. He's played basketball every season for the past 5 years. This past year he played on two teams during one season, meaning he had a game or practice every single day of the week. Every writing assignment he does for school is about sports. Every book he reads is about sports. You know that phrase "for the love of the game"? That sums up his life's passion so far. He loves to play. And it doesn't matter which game--he loves them all.
As a parent and an informed citizen, I know that the chances of him becoming a professional athlete are pretty slim. A report put out by the NCAA lists the probability of high school and college athletes going pro, and the numbers are dismal. The NCAA report for men's basketball shows that only 3.2% of high school players make it to the NCAA, and of those only 1.2% make it to the NBA. In real numbers, the report says that in 2011 there were over half a million high school basketball players. Of those, only 48 made it to the NBA Draft after playing in college. The stats are like that across all sports--the chances of going pro are slim to none. Yet everywhere, young boys dream the dream of being a professional athlete. Young boys of color are particularly drawn to the dream of being a professional athlete because the media doesn't really give them many other images of themselves to consider. How many professional men of color do you see in the media who aren't athletes? As a result, boys of color dream about a better life--wealth, fame, and giving back to the community--through sports. My son is no exception to that rule.
He works hard at sports. He practices, exercises, lives, eats, and breathes sports. He is hard-working and talented, but I have always told him that while he's dreaming about going pro he also needs to dream a back-up plan. "In order to be a college athlete, you have to be a college student. So what do you think you might like to study?" We've talked about Sports Medicine, coaching, training, and Sports Law and he knows that there are lots of other opportunities to earn a living in the world of sports that occur off the field. His dream of being a professional athlete has always been tempered with a dose of reality.
So, when his sister started talking about being a professional tennis player I thought it would be a good idea to have a similar chat...
Except I didn't remember to keep in mind that my daughter is a completely different kid than her brother. She has a wide variety of interests and is always trying something new--from art and basketball to acting, softball, and playing the viola. She is a very well-rounded individual so far, who I am sure will be a very intelligent and well-rounded adult. In fact, when she was little her daycare provider predicted that she would be the first woman President of the United States, and our family often reminds her of that fact because it really could come true! She is just that smart, creative, (and gifted in the art of argument--which is both a blessing and a curse in our house.)
|Image Credit: Flickr/mrlaugh|
When my daughter decided that going pro like Venus Williams was her goal, I instantly wondered why. She has never watched tennis on TV, never read about tennis, and only played for 6 weeks as a first grader! Why is this now her dream?
First thought: my daughter idolizes her older brother and a couple of months ago admitted that her interest in sports is largely due to his interest in sports. Could this just be an attempt to imitate her brother? One thing that's different, though, is she doesn't have the same opportunity to see professional athletes who look like her on TV as he does. They just don't show a lot of women's sports on TV.
Second thought: what type of professional women do they show on TV? What role models for women of color are out there in the media for my daughter to see?
Really-- think about it. When I did, I realized that she has one main source to see women of color in the media: music videos starring scantily clad singers and dancers.
There is of course, Michelle Obama. She is the First Lady: sophisticated, intelligent, polished, socially active. But she is the wife of the President. It doesn't really compare to what I've been trying to tell my daughter: "YOU can BE the President!" Don't have to be the "wife of " anyone...you can be the President.
All this swirled through my mind, along with all the stats about how slim the chances are for any athlete to make it to the elite level. I told my daughter, "You are so good at so many things! I'm glad you like tennis, but remember that it's really hard to be a professional tennis player."
"Don't try to talk me out of it, Mommy. You're just being negative."
Ugh. Here is where I inserted foot in mouth. "I'm not trying to be negative, I just want you to be realistic. People who are professional athletes spend a lot of time practicing and they work really hard. Not to mention that tennis is an expensive sport to learn, and we really can't afford to get you the kinds of lessons you'll need to play at the professional level. When Venus and Serena were your age, their family moved to a new town so that they could study in an elite tennis academy. We can't do anything like that! Can't you just play for fun and think about what else you can do when you grow up?"
At that point the tears started falling. The voice turned into a shriek. "You're ruining my dream, Mommy! Why can't I just dream?"
Indeed, why can't she? I felt sooooo badly then. Evil Mom. I wanted to slink down to hide in a hole in the ground.
After a little while, I apologized to her. I told her the truth, which is that as her mom I don't want her to get hurt. I don't want her to dream about something that is so far out of reach--like a career in professional tennis--when she is so talented and smart in so many other areas and could be successful in something more attainable. Realistically, you might ask--is being President more attainable than being a professional tennis player? I don't know. But I know where her talents are--in reasoning, argument, tenacity, creative thinking, and her ability to communicate. Those talents can take her much closer to being President than they can to being the next Venus Williams.
It all backfired, though. Trying to call attention to her talents in an attempt prevent any hurt she might feel if she fails to become the next Venus Williams... well, that's what hurt her. My attempt to save her from hurt is what caused her a lot of pain.
We both felt terrible. We both shed some tears. I worried, and still do, that I scarred her for life.
Thankfully, we made up later that afternoon. We went to bed on good terms and woke up the next day to get ready for tennis lessons. I tried not to talk about it, but worried that after our previous conversation she wouldn't want to go back to tennis at all. So I asked her, "Are you okay with tennis now?"
She said in a rather low-key way, "Yeah. I think it's a good idea to just play tennis for fun now."
I don't know whether she is crushed and defeated, scarred for life, or just more firmly trenched in reality. It feels to me like she lost some innocence, though. And I might need to visit a therapist myself to get over the guilt I feel for being the one to take that innocence away.
After her lesson (maybe to appease my guilt?) I told her that if she really wanted to pursue a career in tennis I will support her. We will look for scholarships and try to find a teacher who can work with her in the winter. It will mean some sacrifices--like giving up other activities so that we can pay for tennis; but we can do it if she really wants to. I meant it, too. Whatever it takes, we can do it.
Her response? "Mommmmmmy.....I already told you! I just wanna play tennis for fun!"
What do you think? Should we let our children dream big, no matter how unrealistic? Or should we temper their dreams with some reality? I wish I knew the right answer. I really do...