Sporting events score for family time

Whether viewed on TV or in person, sporting events allow families to do something everyone enjoys. Sports can also help parents teach children life lessons.

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March Madness is here and, according to local sports enthusiasts, there’s no better way to strengthen family ties than by going a little crazy together over the NCAA tournament – or the Stanley Cup playoffs or opening day on the baseball diamond or soccer field.

It doesn’t matter which sport you enjoy. Watching with your children creates bonds while you have fun.

Whether viewed on TV or in person, sporting events allow families to do something everyone enjoys. Kathy Crow of Apex recalls that her family’s “addiction” to Carolina Hurricanes hockey began as an attempt to find something she, husband Eric and sons Jacob, 8, and Justin, 6, could do together.

“We were tired of going out to dinner on Saturday nights and decided to do something different,” Crow says. “(Now) nobody complains about being bored, and if you’re a parent, you know how hard it is to find something that everyone wants to do.”

Other parents agree that sports have strengthened their family’s bond. Scott and Mary Beth Sewell of Wake Forest take Ward, 9, and Stone, 6, with them to North Carolina State University football and basketball games.

“It gives the boys an opportunity to do something with us,” Scott Sewell says. “They feel special because they’re not at home with a babysitter.”

Jarrett Campbell of Cary introduced his children, Max, 7, and Molly, 5, to soccer through the Carolina RailHawks, and Max has taken to it enthusiastically.

“It’s wonderful,” Campbell says. “I’m excited that he’s interested in the same things I am.”

Sharing games can deepen parents’ enjoyment of the sport, too. David McKenzie of Durham takes his daughters, Mary Margaret, 4, and Laura Ann, 1, to Durham Bulls games.

“I bought season tickets eight years ago, but I’ve enjoyed them more since my children have started attending,” McKenzie says. “It has become an integral part of our family life.”

Enjoy family-friendly feel

Parents looking to make sports part of their family life have an ally in Triangle teams, which strive to connect with the community and its families. Youth leagues, literacy programs and children’s hospitals are frequent beneficiaries of athletes’ support. Through Girls and Women in Sports, for example, members of the women’s basketball teams at Duke University and N.C. State mentor young girls, visiting them at school and hosting them at a game.

The Hurricanes’ Kids ‘n Community Foundation awards grants to support children’s groups across the state. Executive Director Doug Warf says that such service “has always been seen as the right thing to do. Our mantra is, ‘Be good community neighbors.’”

Many teams feature youth fan clubs, fan appreciation events and game-day activities designed to draw in families:

  • Scott Sewell’s sons are members of N.C. State’s Junior Wolfpack Club, which offers special opportunities like meet-and-greet access to players.
  • The Bulls have playgrounds at their athletic park and organize what David McKenzie calls “silly, kid-friendly games” between innings.
  • The RailHawks start each game with “the kid tunnel,” which team members run through as they take the field.

As founder of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, the RailHawks’ supporters’ club, Campbell has helped shape the team’s family atmosphere. TSF took the European tradition of singing “blue” fight songs and turned it into a G-rated affair, using kid-friendly lyrics and putting a big bass drum in the stands.

“I’m proud of creating an environment where I can watch soccer with my son and daughter,” he says. “That’s really the motivation for the club.”

Seize locker-room moments

Many parents also find that an interest in sports creates opportunities to discuss character with their kids. Just as being part of a team teaches players about teamwork, perseverance and dealing with loss, and even young fans can absorb these lessons with help from their parents.

Kathy Crow’s sons admire the sportsmanship of their favorite players.

“My kids play sports as well, and we have definitely had conversations regarding being a good sport and having respect for” opposing players, she says. “While watching other teams play, they will remark that a player intentionally meant to hurt someone, and their response is always, ‘(Former Hurricane) Justin Williams would never do that. Rod Brind’Amour would never do that.’”

Scott Sewell notes that his son Ward emulates the appearance and work ethic of his sports heroes, especially Matt Holliday, 2007’s National League MVP – and son of N.C. State’s associate head baseball coach – whom he met at baseball camp.

“Matt took the time to teach him something he’s since excelled at,” Sewell says. “That made a big impression on Ward.”

Fran Paradine of Durham, a licensed clinical social worker and mother to three University of North Carolina fans, sees game day as an opportunity for parents to model healthy behaviors.

“We watch the games together, we feel the excitement of victories and the disappointment of defeats together,” Paradine says, “and our children learn from us how to handle both the feelings of pride and of disappointment that are inherent in sports.”

Even those painful moments when sports heroes fall – consider the doping scandal of Marion Jones or photos of Michael Phelps with a bong – can provide parents with teachable moments, she says.

“Obviously, players are human, and they make mistakes,” she says. “Both on and off the field, there will be times when they make choices that are not in line with who we want to believe they are. This offers families an opportunity to talk about their own values … (and) to understand the complexities of choices and consequences.”

Don't confuse fan with fanatic

Of course, cheering for your team wouldn’t be as fun if you didn’t have that other team to root against, and parents aren’t immune to competition. McKenzie admits that he has schooled his daughter on Duke’s rivalry with UNC, sending her to preschool dressed in Duke apparel and joking that the “Carolina blue” sky is “the wrong color.”

Most parents chuckle over their children’s responses to rivalry.

“Our boys like to do car magnets and flags when we go to games,” Sewell says, “and they’ll flash the No.1 sign at cars from the opposing team.”

“Occasionally, my youngest will say he is cheering for another team," Crow says, "and his older brother responds with, ‘You can’t live in this house anymore then.’ Gotta love boys!”

Such expressions are benign, of course. But Dr. Richard Southall, assistant professor and coordinator of UNC’s Graduate Sport Administration Program, cautions that too much enthusiasm for sports can create rifts in community – and family. With young fans who lack the maturity to temper an intense attraction to a particular team or athlete, the possibility of over-immersion in fan culture is strong.

“Sport is drama, just like a play,” Southall says. “We construct the themes … and endow the athletes with our hopes and dreams. But how can we respect someone we really don’t know, or hate a team or its fans?”

Parents need to create balance between interest and fixation, he says.

However, even intense rivalries and near-obsession can allow families to reflect on their values.

“Address (sports-related conflicts) as you would other issues – with respect for the other person’s ideas and choices,” Paradine says. “Where there is disagreement, there is also a chance to teach children that conflict does not need to be scary, that it can be handled in a respectful way.”

In the end, as always, parents make the difference. Commit to enjoying the experience with your child, check your own fanaticism at the gate and maintain perspective that, win or lose, it really is just a game. The memories you build with your family are what matter most.