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On the mound, field or court, children learn to grow from struggle

James K. Rilling is a Winship Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology at Emory University with a secondary appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

By James K. Rilling

My 5-year-old stood crying on the basketball court; he'd banged his head slightly and we took him out of the game. He soon settled down and at half-time, I asked him if he wanted to get back in. To my surprise he said yes. In the second half, he got two rebounds and made his first basket ever.

As a college professor, I’ve been hearing about rising rates of depression and anxiety among college students. I recently asked two mental health providers why this is happening and both independently offered lack of resilience as an explanation. This begs the question of how we cultivate resilience in our own children. Many of us strive to provide our children with warm, sensitive and nurturing environments that will facilitate their development into intelligent, thoughtful and empathic adults. But that’s not all they will need. They will also need to deal with adversity and overcome it, and, especially in a society like ours, they will probably need to compete.

For many children in our privileged society, sports may be the answer. I marvel at the opportunities sports have provided my son for social and psychological growth. When he first started playing at age 3, the anthropologist in me was struck by the harshness of the ritual: small children, on stage, being implored by a crowd of screaming, excited adults to compete and succeed. It seemed almost cruel. I wondered if the kids were thinking, “Have the grown-ups gone crazy?” Nevertheless, the first important lesson our kids learn from sports is that we live in a competitive society where you sometimes have to compete.

I took my son to his first soccer game when he was 3. He had a meltdown, and then he had another meltdown at our third game, but by the end of the season he was OK. I took him to gymnastics when he was 4, and he had a really bad melt-down. As he clung to my leg crying, he pleaded, “I just want to go home Daddy.” It would have been easier for both of us to go home, but I viewed it as a critical moment in his development. Would he learn to shy away from challenges or accept them? I managed to calmly tell him that I knew he was scared, and that I loved him very much, but that we weren’t going home. Then I repeated “we’re not going home” and I think somehow he knew that I meant it.

Eventually I was allowed to sit with him in the gym while he watched the other kids do their gymnastics – I was the only parent in the gym – the others were all watching from outside where we were supposed to be. After about 25 minutes, I got him to try the balance beam while I held his hand, and 5 minutes later he was on his own, smiling and laughing and fully participating. Later that year, he had a meltdown at our first T-ball practice, and I again told him that we were not going home. When he turned 5, we tried basketball – another meltdown, but we stayed … and he kept playing. Now he’s in his fourth season of soccer, no melt-downs, and he’s thriving.

He looks forward to games, tries his hardest, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in there. Lesson No. 2: Things that are scary or hard at the beginning get easier if you keep trying and don’t give up, and sometimes they even get to be really fun when you become better at them. Struggle can ultimately lead you to a better place.

I still have no idea how my son managed to get the basketball over the 8-foot rim that day. He had never done it before. He was beaming (Dad was trying not to cry). I remind him about Lesson No. 3 all of the time: Bad things can happen to you in the first part of the game (or the first part of your day or your life), but if you don’t give up and try your hardest, good things can happen later on.

Maybe professional athletes know these things intuitively. As Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” That quote hangs over my son’s bed.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.