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Sports Make for Happy Families

Let's face it. Not all families are happy with each other all -- or even most -- of the time. But if your kids and you seem to be at odds more than not, you might want to look toward sports and exercise as a solution.

That's just one of many findings of a survey about children and sports by the Women's Sports Foundation and Harris Interactive. The survey of more than 2,000 children and more than 850 parents looked at sports participation and attitudes among third-graders through high school seniors.

It defined family satisfaction on the basis of questions around communication, flexibility and cohesion. Examples of this are family member's ability to share positive experiences, resolve conflicts and cope with stress; their closeness and concern for each other; and the amount of time they spent together.

WSF/Harris measured family satisfaction separately for single-parent households, which make up about 1/3 of families, and dual-parent households. And what it found was that regardless of the number of parents, families were happier when children participated in one to three sports in a year. The least satisfied families were single-parent households in which children participated in four or more sports or no sports at all. The number of sports didn't significantly change family satisfaction in dual-parent households, though. Popular sports for girls are dancing, swimming/diving, baskeball and jogging/running. For boys, the favorites are basketball, football, soccer and jogging/running.

This family happiness may simply be because of parental involvement in sports. After all, 93 percent of parents with children who participate in sports talked with them about the sport one to two times a week. Ninety percent attended games or performances once a week or more. More than 60 percent practiced or exercised with their children once or more a week and 59 percent of parents spent time as the athlete chauffeur. "These 'soccer mom' or 'hockey dad' moments may give mothers and fathers a chance to chat with their children or to eavesdrop on backseat conversations that, in turn, may provide insights into their children’s lives," wrote Don Sabo and Phil Velizm, the authors of the report. And in general, kids who participate in sports are happy with their lives and develop healthy body images. (For more on the health aspects of the report, go to today's The Checkup blog.)

Still, not all kids are involved with sports and not all parents encourage them. Girls who live in urban areas and are growing up in lower-income, single-parent families are less involved in sports, according to the report. And while boys most often list their dads as a main source for sports encouragement, girls list dads third behind non-family members.

How engaged are your kids in sports? Have you seen differences in your girls versus boys? And do you find your family's happier during sports seasons than during breaks?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Teens , Tweens
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Mine are a little young yet for the team sports, but we see a huge, huge difference in our 7-yr-old when she has plenty of time to run and exercise. She is very high energy, and it just seems to take the edge off. This summer was far and away our calmest, happiest time at home in several years -- she was at camp every day, spending literally 5-6 hrs a day exercising and generally running around, and she'd come home just bubbling with tired happiness. As soon as school started and she had to sit in class all day, boom, it started again -- the whinies, the sparks of anger, the over-emotional drama queen. So I'm always looking for ways to just get her out and running off some of that energy. Luckily, her before- and after-care sends the kids out to the playground as much as possible (one of the reasons we chose it).

Yeah, ok, I'm sure some of it had to do with camp being much more fun than school. :-) But she loves her teacher, understands everything they're doing, loves school, and is general has really gotten her confidence back after her horrible last year, so it's not just an "I hate school" thing. We consistently see a big difference in her behavior when we can physically exhaust her. Unfortunately, we're usually the ones that crater first!

Posted by: laura33 | October 13, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Since this study was done by the women's sport foundation, I'm assuming they didn't look at other extra curricular activities. I'd venture to bet it is more about having a life full of activities that engage and excite you and less about sports in general. I think sports are great, we do several and I think its important to be active and healthy, but I don't think they are the be all and end all. Finally, and this is said as the parent of a child who dances, dancing, while a physical pursuit, is NOT a sport.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 13, 2008 8:25 AM | Report abuse

We try to get the kids out of the house as much as possible. Part of this is so that we don't annoy the people below us. The more the kids stay in the house, the more rambunctious they get and I assume the worse it is for our neighbours below us.

The second part is that exhausted kids are quieter kids and they go to sleep easier at night. Since we can't go to sleep until after they fall asleep we prefer the fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow scenario.

And seriously... it is way more fun for all of us to get out and go biking or walking or play on the swings or whatever it is that we have planned than stay in the house and watch TV, colour or play with the few toys that we have in our house.

Caveat: We only have the kids for weekends so we don't have to deal with after school meltdowns and so on.

Posted by: Billie_R | October 13, 2008 8:39 AM | Report abuse

I've always been a huge fan of youth sports. The teamwork and physical activities are important for kids. I got involved with all of my kids' sports efforts. Over time it slanted way more toward the girls because so many more parents seem to be involved with boys' teams. That goes for fathers AND mothers. DS' baseball teams would always have nine parents who wanted to help coach, help with fundraising, organize things, etc. We were lucky if we could get two for the girls' teams.

Agree with moxie that sports is not the be-all and end-all. Our kids have always been active with music (choral and instrumental) and there's a very high correlation between musical ability and math ability.

But I'm biased towards the sports. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 13, 2008 8:42 AM | Report abuse

As usual, I agree with Moxie mom. The chemical reaction your body produces from being engaged in things you genuinely like to do makes for a happier and more well adjusted person. However, I cannot deny the boost you get from physical activity. If my kids are cranky, I often send them out to run laps around the house. They may complain about it initially, but they come back in a better mood. If they really resist, I get out the stop watch and we do speed trials. Hiking is another activity we are trying to do more of as a family.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 13, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Well actually I am not totally sure I agree. For many people I have seen, I think involvement in kids' sports has gotten out of hand. I know many families who can't do anything on weekends - even go help ailing grandma, in one instance I know - because the kids HAVE to go to a game. And the increasing boorishness of some parents on the sidelines of kids's sporting events, even violence in some cases, is not a great development for our society. I think there has to be a balance. Sports and exercise and activity are all good. But so are schoolwork and participating in extended family events and volunteer work etc. Both my kids are in their 20s now, and even though both were encouraged to participate in sports, neither my son nor my daughter were into it very much. So, we bonded over other activities, and they turned out just fine. I think especially in light of recent articles about how American kids are falling behind in math and other subjects and blaming it a lot on how our society does not value scholarship much, that maybe some of the focus for kids needs to be turned away from sports so much. They are good but I think we put too much value there, just my opinion!

Posted by: catherine3 | October 13, 2008 12:15 PM | Report abuse

My kids, G-10, B-7, B-6, all started team sports at about 4. The experience has been fabulous for them. When soccer seemed to dominate our lives we scaled it back a little. There have been a couple injuries. Not every event was fun.

But the results!

Just to focus on one of the kids: I told me daughter long ago—and reminded her many times—if she plays she will get hurt. There is no maybe about it. That’s the price that comes with playing. And she’s been told many times that playing is her choice alone. No one will be disappointed if she doesn’t want to play.

And what happens? She gets hit hard by the ball. She cries (at this age the ball might have been hit or thrown hard enough for you or me to cry if hit). She’s escorted off the field. Ten minutes later she wants back in the game. By the time we ride home she finds the whole incident is unimportant. This scene has happened many times.

What’s going on? She’s growing up. She’s learning about courage. She’s learning about teammates and teamwork. She is learning about herself. She is doing something she chose to do, and experiencing both setbacks and success. This is way beyond just getting exercise or play.

We care much more about academics and their development as people, but while it is hard to put a value on sports, it has been invaluable to us.

Posted by: asdf4 | October 13, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT. We're all happier, sleep better, think clearer, manage anger better when we get plenty of physical exercise.

Trouble is with everyone involved in _organized_ sports, there's NO ONE left in the _neighborhood_ to form kickball/football/softball games, play tag, swim with, etc. like we did as kids it's like you HAVE to sign your kids up--pay $, volunteer, chauffer-- if you want them to have other kids to play with.

After one boring summer...we figured out that, for my daughter to see her classmates in the summer, she HAD to join swimteam &/or go to a camp. (Prior summer I was always wondering WHERE all the kids were during the day... They all had already finished swimteam practice in early morning and were off at other camps or were hanging at home during the day as they were tired of swimming from practice.)

But it's the "new" reality (how "new", I don't know) of so many dual-income earner families as well as (for stay at home mom families, or lock-key kids after school) media fear-mongering about remote possibility of kidnapping if kids are out playing in the neighborhood "unsupervised". Sigh.

It's really a shame. But if you can't beat 'em, you have to join 'em.

But I do see why doing too many sports (or none) leads to LESS family harmony/happiness.

But it's hard if your child doesn't have natural athletic ability ... sure they learn "not everyone can be a winner" but it's a big time commitment and I wish she could just open the door and "go outside and play" like we did.

My son, who has autism, NEEDS organized special needs sports in order to play "productively"...they are a Godsend. Esp. his Coolcats Hockey "team"...he's been at it over a year now and still doesn't understand the point of a "game", but it gets him and his dad out of the house in a regular, bonding experience and gave him his own summer sports camp experience last year. It was good for him and us and made us feel more like a "normal" family.

Posted by: sgoewey | October 13, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I'm with MoxieMom and Laura33. My girls, especially the 7yo (who also had a horrible year last year), need to be active to be happy. She wants to be out riding her bike every afternoon. But I am sure that her twice a month girl scout meetings and twice a week church functions are doing as much for her (and our family) happiness as organized sports would. It goes back to the topic from a few weeks ago--children with multiple activities are happier than those without, but parents may get stressed if there are too many activities. So I talk with my kids about their activities, am involved with church activities, encourage active play, and we do some active things as a family--but no organized sports. I just don't have time for all that.

Posted by: janedoe5 | October 13, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm joining the outside-activities-but-doesn't-have-to-be-sports contingent.

My siblings all played sports as kids and I didn't. Dad was a *huge* supporter of all of them - drove carpools, watched every game he possibly could, etc. But I wouldn't say that ours was one of the happier families.

I would say that my kids and family, now, are much happier. No sports. Lots of music. Lots of interacting with the boys. This past week end, we had older son help DH and me figuring out slope/elevation of our lot - which we need for the city planning-and-permit office so we can build our recording studio. Younger son helps me in the garden pretty regularly, and the latest project was planting a blood orange tree. He dug the hole, helped with root trimming, filling in the hole, watering it in, and putting a rock border around the planting.

I think family happiness comes from doing *something* together that everyone can enjoy, or get a sense of accomplishment from. Sports work for that, for some (maybe most?) families, but so do other activities and interests.

Posted by: SueMc | October 13, 2008 5:24 PM | Report abuse

sgoewey - I agree with you 100%. Unless I want my kids sitting in the yard just the two of them, I've got to sign them up in the summer. It is exceedingly sad. I'm always happiest when we have 10 kids over and in and out of the house playing games, asking for drinks or some rope etc.... I think we've lost a lot as a society and it concerns me that we will have children who grow up to be adults who are completely reactive and don't know how to generate anything on their own or how to fill quiet time.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | October 13, 2008 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I'll add one more comment about sports. I've been shocked by how good and how young some of the grade school boys and girls get at their sports.

Particularly around 3rd and 4th grade you start to see a dramatic separation between the kids who are picking up sports for the first time and those who have played since kindergarden. The issue is one of safety. You cannot have the short stop flinging a rocket to first base whent he kid at first base is still learning which way to hold the mit.

All the other activies described in these posts are great. And some places have separate entry level programs so that kids don't need to get such an early start. But that said, by putting off sports at an early age many kids will lose any realistic opportunity to play in team sports.

For all of you who don't like this, I agree. I don't like it, either. But it is what it is.

Posted by: asdf4 | October 13, 2008 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Basically ,sports isn't for everyone,but sports are good for everyone in some form or fashion.My child is a very active, accomplished athlete.It is very easy to become completely involved with the activities and the postive accolades that come with it.

A family needs to do some activity any activity besides watching TV as a family more than a sport per say.Our family loves the sport we participate in but if not for it, I would have found something else to do.My child has lots of other things to enjoy and sports id just one.Off season we do lots of non sports things and have a blast.

Posted by: stormygirl | October 14, 2008 1:49 AM | Report abuse

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