Every parent wants to pass along his or her interests and passions to the next generation. Those of us who are parents and sports fans want to expose our children to the world of sports while they are still young. This involves signing them up for soccer, taking them to basketball camp, or teaching them the backstroke.
It also involves taking them to games.
Parents who are sports fans dream of sitting with their son and/or daughter at the ballpark on a late summer evening, teaching their offspring how to keep score and splitting a bag of popcorn. But such a dream is exactly that: a dream. Taking children to sporting events poses all sorts of challenges that the average parent does not anticipate. And, if you aren’t careful, you may walk away from the ballpark hating your children and the sport of baseball.
Here are some things that every parent should know or consider before taking the kids to a ball game:
Major sports venues don’t have child rates.
Movie theaters, miniature golf courses, restaurants, bowling alleys, and museums offer reduced rates or less expensive options for young children. NFL stadiums, big league ballparks, and major college basketball arenas do not. At these venues you are not paying for admission or an experience; you’re paying for a seat. And the price of that seat is the same regardless of who or what is sitting in it.
Say you want to spend a Friday evening this fall at the United Center, watching the Chicago Blackhawks host the Nashville Predators. The cheapest seats available at StubHub are $35 each. That’s $35 for you, $35 for your spouse (if he or she goes with you), and $35 for each child. $140 is a lot of money (for most people at least). And when you spend $140 on a hockey game (not counting food, parking, and so forth), you want to be damn sure that you have $140 worth of fun. Every plea to go home, every complaint about the length of the game, and every comment about the difficulty of seeing what’s going on from your $35 seats enters your brain as, “Hey, Dad, you just wasted a bunch of money.”
Young children judge sports by different standards than their parents. A five-year-old doesn’t care that the Blackhawks are playing a division rival with one of the best goalies in the game or that the game might have playoff implications. As far as she’s concerned, a hockey game is a hockey game. You might as well save your money and watch the Milwaukee Admirals play the Peoria Rivermen.
While major professional and big-time college stadiums and arenas aren’t likely to cut your children a break, high schools and many small colleges will. And families with fixed incomes have long been a target demographic for minor league baseball and hockey franchises.
Your seven-year-old doesn’t care that the star of your local AAA baseball team likely has missed his last chance to get a job in the bigs and will spend the rest of his career in minor-league purgatory. And he doesn’t care that, by 2012, no one (including some of the players on the winning team’s roster) will remember who won the International League championship in 2011. He just wants to see the home team win a ball game.
You will be making trips to the concession stand . . .
I try not to spend money at concession stands. When you make your living as a writer/editor and use negative numbers to calculate your disposable income, a $4.00 soft pretzel isn’t a wise investment. On my own, at a basketball game or movie, I can walk by a concession stand without even noticing it. But children under the age of 12 are incapable of passing a concession stand without stopping.
With small children in tow, you cannot walk past a concession stand. It’s impossible. You must either stop to make a purchase or stop to explain argue why you will not be making a purchase at this time. At the very least, during the course of a game, you will have to purchase one food item and one beverage for each child, at a cost of $8.00 per kid. (Most stadium concession stands don’t sell kids’ meals.) If you would like to stay for the entire game (more on that below), you will be making multiple trips to the concession stand.
You could recoup some of your losses by telling the kids that whatever they get at the concession stand counts as that evening’s dinner. But then you’d be feeding your children a dinner of popcorn and Powerade®, and that would make you a bad parent.
On the other hand, you are the adult. The one in charge. You can say to your kids, “We’re getting one order of nachos and one Sprite®, and you three can split it.” But if you do this, you will spend the remainder of the game refereeing fights about cheese dip and who got more than his share of Sprite® and explaining to the children why you won’t be making additional trips to the concession stand. (“I’m out of money” doesn’t work. Kids know about debit cards and assume that they’re a bottomless source of revenue.)
. . . and the restroom.
Small children have small bladders and need to empty their small bladders frequently. (I know that when I was a kid my bladder held no more than a tablespoon of liquid.) And when they have to go, they have to go.
Your kid and his bladder don’t care that your team is in the red zone or that the go ahead run is at the plate. You can only hold them off for so long before you’re putting the family at risk for a full-scale disaster. Kids go from comfortable to explosion in about 90 seconds, and it doesn’t matter to them that the game is tied with 1:54 left in regulation.
Sending your child, by himself, to the restroom is not an option. Maybe you can get away with this at a restaurant or at the Little League park or at church. But you can’t get away with it at [insert name of sponsor here] Stadium. If you have at least one boy and one girl, and if your spouse (or another adult) is not with you, trips to the restroom get complicated. If one child feels the urge to go, all the children must make the trip to the restroom; so you’ll be taking a girl into the men’s restroom or a boy into the women’s. This isn’t a problem if the opposite-sex child is four. If he or she is eight, it’s a little weird.
Taking a girl into the men’s restroom is an adventure unto itself. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a men’s restroom stall in which the toilet hasn’t been showered in urine by someone who was too lazy to lift up the seat and/or wait for a urinal. Needless to say, you don’t want your daughter sitting in a strange man’s urine. So you’ll need to grab at least four paper towels, soak two of them in soapy water, and clean and dry the least offensive toilet seat available. It sounds extreme, but it must be done.
If you want to be there for the end of the game, arrive at halftime.
Children have always had short attention spans. But kids today have really short attention spans. By age six, they’ve figured out how to use Google and Netflix. They watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. And when they get bored, they move on to something else.
When I was eight, every video game I played had to be completed in one sitting. (It wasn’t until The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Kid Icarus in 1987 that games in which one could save one’s progress and continue play later become popular.) Now most games are designed to be consumed one level or task at a time. Save your game and come back later.
A two-hour basketball game or a three-hour baseball game is a lot for a child of the twenty-first century to take in. (So is a 90-minute movie. I still haven’t seen the end of Rango.) Just because your seven-year-old wants the home team to win a game doesn’t mean that he cares if he’s there to see it. The moment he decides that he’d rather be on the playground, playing video games, or eating dinner (because you promised to take him to Subway after the game), Row GG Seat 26 becomes a prison from which he must escape.
My children can last about 75 minutes at a sporting event before accusing me of holding them against their will. Once the complaining begins, your day at the ballpark is over. As the adult, you can stand your ground and insist that you will be staying until the game is over. But you’ll be miserable.
So if you want to be there for the fourth quarter or the ninth inning or the final minutes of the second half, show up an hour after the game starts.
If being fashionably late isn’t your thing, consider taking children only to sporting events where the experience of being there is more important than the outcome of the game, such as minor league baseball games.
Kids are sensitive to weather.
They’re not always sensitive to weather. They won’t hesitate to spend an afternoon playing outside in 100° heat; and they’ll run outdoors in dead of winter wearing only a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. But when they are expected to sit in one place for two hours, they have no tolerance for extreme temperatures.
If you take a child under the age of eight to an afternoon baseball game in July or an evening football game in November, expect a litany of complaints as long as the time you spend inside the stadium. Eventually your kids will convince you that you are a cruel person who makes children suffer needlessly. (My daughter still reminds me of the time I refused to leave a college baseball game even though her “eyes were melting.”) With the burden of guilt now too heavy to bear, you and your family will leave the stadium while the game is still in doubt.
Don’t expect your kids to understand or appreciate what’s going on.
Parents want to introduce their kids to the games they love. This is why we take small children to sporting events. We hope to sit in the stands with our kids, teaching them about squeeze plays and zone defenses and explaining why the home team’s DB was not guilty of pass interference, regardless of what the referee said.
So we get frustrated when our children don’t understand what was special about an unassisted double play or our team’s two guard hitting a contested jump shot. We are baffled that they aren’t amazed when a receiver is able to keep both feet inbounds and maintain control of the ball. We invest time, money, and a half-dozen trips to the restroom to give our children the opportunity to see some of the best athletes in the world at work, and they don’t even appreciate what they’re watching. How ungrateful!
Children don’t learn by watching, they learn by doing. A five-year-old won’t figure out the rules of football simply by going to a few games with dad. He’ll learn by playing the game with kids his age. The job of the parent at a sporting event is to point out things that the child might find interesting without overwhelming the child with information.
While seasoned football fans don’t always get excited about special teams play (especially now that the NFL has changed its kickoff rule), punts, kick-offs, and point-after attempts can be very interesting for a five-year-old. “Watch: He’s going to kick the ball really, really hard.” “Check this out: He’s going to try to kick the ball between those two yellow poles.” The same is true for free-throws in basketball. “One of the Drake players was being too rough, so Colt Ryan gets to stand behind that line and shoot two shots without anyone trying to stop him.”
Keep things simple for children, and don’t expect them to appreciate the nuances of the sport you’re watching. Chances are, when your child looks back on that time he went to a college basketball game with daddy, he won’t remember anything about the game itself. He’ll just remember the guy dressed as a giant pickle who danced on the court during a time out to promote the local deli.
What are the best sporting events for small children?
High school basketball
High school basketball games are inexpensive, and many high schools allow young children to watch games for free. Kids aren’t constrained by a seat, and no one will stop you from bringing in a bag full of crayons, paper, and assorted toys. When the children lose interest in the game, they have plenty of room to spread out and do something else. If you attend a game at the high school for which you are zoned, your kids stand a pretty good chance of running into some of their school friends.
In many states, boys’ and girls’ basketball teams play doubleheaders, so you can un-teach the idea that boys play sports and girls are cheerleaders—an idea that persists even four decades after Title IX. That said, cheerleaders are an important part of the high school basketball experience, and high school cheerleaders perform incredible feats of athleticism. Many high schools also have pep bands and dance teams and invite students to sing the national anthem.
By taking your children to a high school basketball game, you are presenting them with several examples of ways in which young people can use their gifts to participate in the culture of sport.
Minor league baseball
Minor league baseball teams go to great lengths to lure families with young children. (The last time my family went to a AAA game, the kids spent more time jumping around on inflatables than watching the game.) Games are affordable and you usually end up pretty close the action. Players are accessible and available for autographs. And since baseball season begins in the spring and ends in the fall—and since many of the games are played in the evening—you have plenty of opportunities to enjoy a game when the weather is mild.
Usually when we think of taking kids to a sporting event, baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer come to mind. But why not take the kids to a swimming or track and field meet? The race is the most basic and easy-to-understand athletic contest; and running and swimming are activities that children do and enjoy. Unlike a football game, which is a single, three-hour competition, track and swimming meets consist of a couple dozen events, most of which are completed in a few minutes or less. Thus track and swimming are ideal for arriving late and/or leaving early.
Most every city has a roller derby league that is part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Teams in these leagues compete against one another, and the leagues field teams that compete against other cities. Roller derby leagues usually admit children for free or for a reduced rate. Kids love roller skates and good, solid hits. And, if you have a daughter, there’s the whole female empowerment thing. The downside to Roller Derby is explaining to your children why the athletes are named “The Virgin Cherry” and “Jack E. RIPher.”
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.