“You’re killing my dream!” my almost 9-year-old son wailed after I told him I wasn’t sure if he would be allowed to play football in the fall.
“Killing your dream?” I asked.
“Don’t you know the only thing I want to do is play football in the NFL, someday?” he moaned.
“Don’t you know how few players actually make it to the NFL?” I retorted.
“YES! That’s why I need to start practicing now! You’re killing my dream!”
Over the next few weeks, my son continued to lobby for permission to play football, and my husband and I responded by telling him all the reasons we were hesitant to give that permission, namely safety concerns, the time commitment, and more safety concerns.
Behind closed doors, my husband and I talked about all of the risks involved with playing football, most notably the risk of concussions and head injuries that carry long-term health concerns. But we also talked about the risks of not letting our son play football. Not only did I not want to be a “dream killer” (no parent does), but I was also hesitant to waver from a personal parenting philosophy to enthusiastically encourage controlled risk-taking.
We can’t put our children in a permanent protective bubble, nor would I want to; and even if we could, we all know there are no guarantees in life. Accordingly, I believe it is my job as a parent to teach my children to become aware of the risks involved in an activity and then weigh those risks against the benefits, so that they can make informed but brave decisions throughout their life. I worried that by putting football in the off-limits category, I would be engaging in the kind of overprotective parenting that so often backfires by either instilling a sense of excessive fear or creating a situation in which the child engages in the prohibited activity anyway, albeit without adequate protection and supervision.
What’s more, I want my children to pursue their dreams and do those things that make them come alive, even if that makes swallowing my own fears and sensibilities. There are limits, of course, on what my husband and I will support when it comes to our children’s dreams, but the line is fuzzy on certain things like football and hockey, especially when there so much controversy and debate about the extent and nature of the risks. In other words, while I wouldn’t have thought twice about being a dream killer if my son asked to skydive, I did think twice about being a “dream killer” when it came to football.
Parenting philosophies aside, there were also cultural implications at play. Not only do many of my son’s closest friends play the sport, but football is embedded into the fabric of American society. Truth be told, football was an integral part of my own childhood, and I am particularly fond of the sport for its finesse, quick pace and almost poetic displays of athleticism. How could I forbid my son from playing a sport that my husband and I enthusiastically watched most weekends?
This isn’t the first tough parenting decision my husband and I have had to make, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Experts might tell us one thing, but practicality tells us another. So we parents take in the advice, filter it through our personal experiences and ideals, and then make the best decision based on the information at hand. But unlike other parenting decisions, such how much screen time is appropriate or how to discipline a toddler, I don’t have the same intuition and personal experience to guide me through the Great Football Debate.
In talking with other parents and researching online, it seems parents generally fall into one of four camps when it comes to youth football. Parents in the first group let their kids play flag football but draw the line at tackle football. Those in the second group enthusiastically allow their children to play football, reasoning that the benefits of playing the sport outweigh the risks. They note that other sport can also be dangerous and lead to injuries. Those in the third take a wait-and-see approach, placing football off-limits until the child is older, although what is considered “older” seems to vary. And, finally, those in the last group hold fast in the face of their children’s pleas with a strong “no,” resting on experts’ opinions – including that of Bennet Omalu, the doctor at the center of the movie of “Concussion" and who is credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the progressive degenerative disease believed to originate with repeated knocks to the head. They believe that children should not be allowed to play football until they are deemed capable of making a fully informed decision at age 18 to 25.
I do understand the rationale for each of these positions. They all make sense to me, which is why it was so hard to make a decision.
In the end, however, we relented and signed our son up for tackle football, reasoning that at age 8 or 9, the physical contact likely wouldn’t be too hard and hoping our son would get it out of his system before the sport became rougher (and riskier) as the boys grew bigger, stronger and more aggressive. We reminded him of the risks and said that we reserved the right to change our mind if evidence of the risks began to outnumber the benefits.
As the end of summer neared, so did the beginning of football season. After we picked up his equipment the week before practices began, he and a friend suited up to practice in the back yard. The boys tugged, pushed and wrestled their little bodies into pads and helmets that weighed almost as much as they did. Then they ran outside to play.
But not more than five minutes into a game, my son ran into the house crying.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, he stood in the exact same spot where, three months earlier, he had told me I was “killing his dream” of playing in the NFL and cried, “I don’t wanna play football! I don’t wanna play football!”
In the end, it was a ball taken in the gut – something that could happen in any sport or on any school playground – that ended my son’s football season before it started. The next afternoon, my son quit football, with a full refund except for the $20 administrative fee. We signed him up for the fall baseball league instead.
As it turned out, that might have been the best $20 we ever spent. My son made his own decision not to play football, and I was able to keep dream killer off my résumé — for now.
A lawyer-turned-writer, Organ is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life. She writes at www.christineorgan.com and you can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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