The Rockwood Files: When extra-curricular gets extra crazy

When our daughter Kate was almost 3, I walked into the living room and caught her climbing the wall – literally. She’d scaled a wingback chair and stepped from the top onto a window ledge. Balancing on the thin strip of wood, she grabbed the window casing near the ceiling. When I spotted her, she was hanging by her fingertips, smiling widely over her gravity-defying achievement.

That was the day I enrolled her in gymnastics. Right away, she loved it.

Fast forward three years and thousands of cartwheels later, Kate has been asked to participate in a preliminary program for a competitive gymnastics team. They say she has a natural ability, which is something I realized that day she climbed the wall with relative ease.

I should be happy Kate can advance and compete in a sport she loves. But something about it is unsettling. As the kids get older, I’m hearing more from fellow parents about how extra-curricular activities have changed from simple hobbies into full-fledged obsessions.

Today, sports are serious business, requiring more time and money than ever before. Competitive teams, including those with kids in elementary school, are expected to travel to compete against teams in cities as far as five to 10 hours away from home. Not just once or twice a year but as many as 10 times per season. Weekends are all about the next trip, the next game, the next hotel room.

In addition to time, there are hard costs. Gymnastics meets typically have fees ranging from $60 to $120 per event. With as many as 10 meets per year plus travel, lodging, instruction, and uniform expenses, the total easily soars over the two thousand-dollar mark. One sports father and blogger at kept an online running tally of his family’s expenses for soccer and baseball-related costs, and the year-long total came in at more than $8,000.

But it’s hard for parents to say no when it’s something we assume is “good” for our kids. Author Mark Hyman recently published a book called “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families.” In his eye-opening analysis, Hyman says when it comes to sports and our kids, “We have a hard time distinguishing between supporting them and feeding our runaway ambitions for them. The difference isn’t apparent until long after the credit card has been swiped.”

The money is one thing, but what’s bothering me more is pure logistics. Yesterday I sat in an informational meeting for parents whose kids are about to enter competitive gymnastics. The coach ran through a list of “commitments” we should be ready to make, including multiple weekend trips to long-distance meets with our 6-year-old gymnast in tow.

But we have three kids playing three different sports where the seasons overlap. How can we make that work? Our only option is to split up so one of us can chaperone this kid while the other shuttles a brother or sister to a different game.

Families typically spend five days a week going in different directions for work and school. The weekends should be our time to be together – not separately crisscrossing the tri-state area in search of a cheap hotel rate and another check-mark in the win column.

Not long ago, downtime was a normal part of childhood, but it’s been replaced with practices, trips and game schedules. Are we trading in quality of childhood for quantity of achievement? Are kids winning games and losing something much more important?

I certainly don’t have it figured out. But the questions are there, and they’re alarming ones.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.