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About seven years ago my family started the slow, expensive, time-consuming descent into the youth sports‘ abyss. My oldest son started playing lacrosse when he was 7-years-old and by the fourth grade had become skilled enough to earn a coveted spot on a travel team. Our summers were filled with three-to-four practices per week, state tournaments twice monthly, and a lot of less-than-stellar hotel breakfasts. Our expenses, if charted on a graph resembled a stunt-car ramp.
A few years later, my daughter followed her big brother into competitive sports. And as she advanced to higher levels in gymnastics, the time commitment grew as well. During the summer, she would do conditioning four-to-five hours per day and compete in gymnastics tournaments both in and out of state. Did I mention she was in fourth grade?
My wife and I viewed sports as a way for our four kids to have fun, get exercise, and socialize with their friends. Our two oldest traveled with their teams and our two youngest attended sports camps. The cost, based on the return, was a no-brainer. We happily spent summers driving our kids all over the map because that’s what made them happy. We built family vacations ⏤ and our lives, really ⏤ around the kids’ sports and travel team schedules. And we didn’t do it because we envisioned them as professional athletes or expected them to earn athletic collegiate scholarships; we endured these sports-packed summers because we thought that’s what they wanted.
Somewhere along the way, though, athletics overran our lives. And so, sensing a need for change, I called a family meeting. I asked all four kids again about their desire to play summer sports, but this time I rephrased the question. If they had a choice, I asked, would they want to play sports or have a summer filled with different activities? We could take short trips and explore the state: visit Big Bend, Palo Duro, go tubing in San Marcos, catch some foamy waves on Padre Island, go boating on Lake Travis, swim in the pool, visit caverns, and actually visit more than just a hotel or city sports park in Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio. Most of all, we would have no schedule, no plans, and no structure ⏤ only a guarantee that we would do something fun every day, and we could pick days where we did absolutely nothing.
“Yes!” they shouted in almost perfect unison.
What I discovered is that while my kids enjoyed their sports, they were ready for a change. Even my high schooler, who started the trend, said he wanted a break. But now, as we dive headlong into summer, I’m left to ponder the soundness of my proposal. Soon, I will have four kids at home with nothing to do; three months with no sports; a summer free of practices, regimens, physical conditioning, and scheduled demands.
I’ve no idea if I will survive our little family experiment. I do not know what to expect or whether any of this will even work. My wife says she admires my bravery for plunging into the unknown of an unstructured summer, but acknowledges (dare I say, warns) that kids get bored quickly these days. And maybe that’s the root of the problem. Maybe we have conditioned our kids to be overly stimulated. Maybe we’ve trained them to think that they can’t be alone with their thoughts, or that their time must be filled with sports, activities, devices, and playdates. My hope is that one day they’ll look back on these three months and remember the sand castles we built, the fireworks we watched, the lightning bugs we caught, and how drippy Popsicle juice on an arm can attract curious honeybees.
Heading into this adventure, I feel a sense of excitement I haven’t experienced since my youth. Once again, a familiar restlessness visits me, and I think about what is to come, what new things will be discovered. The only thing I know for sure is that on the horizon is the promise of a summer as I knew it 45 years ago; hot, free and endless. And that couldn’t be more exhilarating. To paraphrase Robert Frost, we are taking the summer less traveled, and that, I hope, makes all the difference.
Steve Alvarez lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, four kids and Chowder the dog. He is the author of the book, Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine, published by Potomac Books.