How A Child Experiences a Basketball Game

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Taking a toddler, freshly outfitted in a 4T throwback jersey, to an NBA game is a rite of modern fatherhood. Struggling to explain the kinetic poetry — broken ankles, alley-oops, outlet passes — of professional sports is its own sort of tradition, a rhetorical pratfall followed by a rhetorical question: Why do I care about this? Different adults have different answers to that question, but most young kids have the same answer. Sure, they’re intrigued to see Kawhi Leonard drop a 30-burger on the Rockets, but kids are far more excited to watch dad yell.

“Toddlers are into the winning and losing, and the excitement,” says Dr. Sylvia Rimm of the Family Achievement Clinic. “But it’s about being on the same team as their dad.”

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The details? Unimportant.

The fact is that all the things that feed the stats – scoring, fouls, offensive boards, or triple-doubles – are lost on a toddler. But Rimm notes a father’s reaction to those details are absorbed by the kid, like so much sweat by bench towel. For a young child, the game is observed through dad. For a young child with a chill dad, there’s no game at all (just a lot of strangers).

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“The value for the kid and the dad is the bonding,” says Rimm. “They’re having fun together. They’re excited when the team does well. They’re sad when the team does badly.”

And this sports bonding does some incredible things. First, it lays the foundation for the love of sports, which Rimm notes is actually pretty crucial for boys because it opens up a primary pathway for socialization. “Even when they’re little, kids talk about well-known sports stars,” says Rimm. Having witnessed a triple-double is valuable cultural currency, even for Kindergarteners.

Hooting in the stadium with dad also helps a kid understand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. “The whole concept of winning and losing is very crucial for a kid’s concept of achieving in the world,” says Rimm. “Sports is very important to help understand the excitement of loving to win, but also the understanding that if you lose, your world doesn’t fall apart.”

Sports help kids understand competition and deal with the fallout when things take a turn for the blowout. She notes that this ability to grasp losing can be cultivated in the bleachers. When a kid is paying attention to their parent during a game, the parent has an opportunity to model reasonable reactions to disappointment, rooting for a comeback or accepting defeat. Those skills — often deployed subconsciously — have application well beyond the court.

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“We have a lot of bright kids who don’t work up to their abilities in school and one of the key, underlying factors is that they can’t deal with competition,” says Rimm. “Kids will blame their parents or teachers, or the school. But that’s an avoidance technique for being afraid that they’re losers.”

So Rimm encourages fathers to be passionate. But also to be fair. No fighting. No yelling about the ref. No bad sportsmanship (beyond the more benign heckling). If the home team loses, accept it. “You say: ‘Oh, darn. That happened. But we go on.’ And then they’ll follow what you do. Don’t cry, even though you may feel like it sometimes.”

At the end of the day, parents who take their kids to games and have a great time are also making the outing a learning experience. And that may be the best case for season tickets anyone has made to date.

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