NPR had a discussion the other day about kids who can’t swim, and why. One of the speakers noted that the biggest predictor for non-swimming kids was… parents who don’t know how to swim.
Not a huge surprise, when you think about it. But it started me reflecting about my own family, and what capabilities or limitations we pass on to our kids.
My dad was a pretty strong athlete. He swam, went to a gym, and played a weekly tennis game all the time we were growing up – played tennis, in fact, until recently sidelined by bad knees in his 80s. As a kid, he played baseball and stickball and a bunch of other sports.
My mom, meanwhile, didn’t play any competitive sports as an adult. Living in Manhattan, she walked a lot so she was in good physical shape. But she thought of herself as a klutz. Didn’t dance, didn’t play tennis, didn’t ride a bike except very occasionally when we would do a short family ride in Central Park.
The one sport that I do remember her enjoying and doing on a regular basis was … swimming.
And I swam. From a very young age. My brother and my sister did too.
I was terrible at baseball, volleyball, tennis. Any sport where you could be picked last for a team, I was picked last. But I swam and dived and water-skied and even passed a Red Cross Junior Life Saving course.
My mother talked about herself as a klutz, and I grew up thinking of myself as a klutz.
My mother talked about herself as tone-deaf, and I grew up assuming I couldn’t sing.
On the other hand, my mother swam – and I swam like a fish.
So I draw a couple of thoughts from this. One is how much more I was influenced by my mother’s example than my father’s, at least in physical endeavors and self-image.
The other is how easy it is for all of us, mothers and fathers alike, to unwittingly transmit our own limitations and self-doubts to our children.
The mom who talks constantly about feeling fat and needing to diet. The mom who laughs self-deprecatingly about how she never understood math. The dad who jokes about how he’s such a bad cook that he’d even burn water.
They think they’re talking about themselves — but their kids are listening and learning.
With sports and body image, at least, I’ve tried to ensure that Becca didn’t inherit my weaknesses. Of course I got her swim lessons at a very young age. We enrolled her in a gymnastics class in preschool. We started her in soccer in 1st grade – and she continues to play soccer even now, going into her junior year in high school.
Now, Becca is far from the best on her team. She’s opted for teams that require two days of practice each week rather than five. She’s not a kid who would ever be in the running for a soccer scholarship to college.
But she’s playing. At age 16, long past the age when statistically most girls drop out of their soccer teams. That makes Sam and me proud.
Playing soccer means she thinks about her body in an active, utilitarian way, not just the ornamental or objectified way that our society pushes on girls. She exerts herself. She sweats. She feels capable.
There have been studies showing that teen girls who participate in team sports are safer, healthier and have higher self-esteem than those who don’t. I recall one anecdote from when I was researching my book on girls’ schools – a middle-aged male partner in a law firm who said he could always tell which young associates had played team sports as girls. The clue? They were more resilient: They might lose a motion or case, but they would pick things up the next day and soldier on, rather than give up or berate themselves.
By making it to 16 and continuing to love soccer, Becca is far beyond me as a teen. Probably beyond me as an adult too – despite my gym workouts and my Czech bike trip venture, I’ll always hold that image of the klutzy last-kid-picked inside me.
Are there other areas where I have passed on my Achilles’ heels to her? I’m sure of it. But let’s save those for another day. At least in the area of sports and fitness, I think I’ve spared her an unwanted legacy.