Q: My husband recently surprised me with a comment about our son's participation in sports. He said it's important to be on a winning team.
Our son, who is 6 1/2, has played on peewee soccer teams for a year but the emphasis has never been on winning. He is now playing T ball and the stress is on sportsmanship and skills, while having a good time.
The team has a 4-3 record, which I don't think is bad.
I didn't play competitive sports growing up. Have I missed something? How do my husband and I balance our attitudes?
A: Competition is healthy and inevitable for your child -- a microcosm of the working world he'll face some day -- but competition, particularly in sports, can be a foreign idea to women.
Where females usually network, males traditionally play king of the mountain. These primitive survival traits were probably imprinted on our skulls and you can see why. A woman is born to network because she doesn't want to have her baby all alone, whether it's in a hospital or a cave, and a man works competitively because he knows how necessary it is to bring home the bacon, whether it's on the hoof or bought out of a paycheck.
No matter how much men and women try, the barriers between us persist. We can only learn to respect the validity of each other's viewpoints, and, as psychologist Carol Gilligan of Harvard has said, to listen to those who speak "in a different voice."
Your child will grow up hearing both your voices, and unless they're often acrimonious, he'll decide what's right for him. You can expect his attitude toward competition in sports -- and probably in everything else -- to follow his own masculine inclinations, but they may be less emphatic than your husband's, because you will have tempered it.
And tempering is all to the good.
A 6-year-old is too young to have such a heavy emphasis on winning, nor do you want your son to hop from team to team, so he can be on one that always wins.
Let his need to win come from within. It will probably surface in a few years, becoming intense in the preteens when enthusiasms turn into passions.
There is a real value in team sports in the early grades, as long as the team is small enough for your child (and all the team members) to play at least half of every game. This will give him far more than good times.
Team sports will teach your child to be loyal, hard-working and self-disciplined and if the whole team tries hard enough, and the players are good enough (and the other players aren't as good), he'll have the fun and honor of being on a winning team for the best reason of all: He and his teammates will have worked together to get to the top.
As a parent, you can do much to help your child enjoy team sports and to get the most out of them.
It's important to appraise his athletic skills accurately and then accept them. If you push your child into something because it will make you proud or because you were good in that sport (or wished you were good), he's apt to be unsuccessful and may grow to hate it or even hate all sports.
And if your child has only a little aptitude for a sport and still pursues it anyway, love him for it. It's the trying that counts, and that will teach him good lessons in persistence and fortitude.
It's also important that the coach knows children as well as he knows the game, that he uses encouragement, not sarcasm, to help them play better, and that he teaches the children to play to win and always to play fair. If he doesn't meet these criteria, take your child off the team but if he does, you have to step back and leave the coaching to him.
It would upset your child if you or your husband second-guessed his coach, by telling him a different way to bat the ball or throw it, or giving your son a great deal of specific advice on the way to the game or rehashing the plays at dinner, and telling him what he should have done and when. This is entirely too much pressure to put on a child, at any age.
It might also pressure him if you go to every game, unless it's clear that your regular attendance is terribly important to him. Attendance at one out of three to four games is usually enough to give a child the support he needs, but not so much that he would think you were taking over an activity that is really his own. This distancing is one more way a parent shows respect for her child.
When you do go to a game, don't compare the performance of the players in their hearing and don't complain about any of them, especially about your own child. And when you give a cheer, give it for a particular play, not for a particular player, even your own child.
Whether the team wins or loses, compliment your son freely. It takes courage to play a game when the whole team counts on you.
The dependability he develops, as well as the sportsmanship and skills and joy he gets from playing on a team, will all add to his self-confidence, whether his team wins or not.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.