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Should you sign your kid up for a sport they don't like? Add to ...

As the fall swirl of extracurricular activities gets under way, sports schedules are flying – will it will be soccer or hockey, gymnastics or swimming? And, who gets to pick, anyway? You, or your kids?

American First Lady Michelle Obama recently sparked a debate over this question after Obama biographer Jodi Kantor collected a series of the Obamas’ parenting missives in a New York Times piece. Growing up, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, had to take up two sports, she wrote. They could choose one, but their mother chose the other.

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“I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don’t like and to improve,” Kantor quoted her as saying.

While other strict parenting practices were also mentioned in the piece – including a no-weekday-TV rule and a requirement that the girls write her reports after going on school trips – the extracurricular authoritarianism struck a nerve.

Online critics blasted Obama for being too tough – and potentially ruining other kids’ fun by sending her sulky girls into the fray. But others cheered the First Lady’s hard line, saying they do the same with their broods.

Toronto dad Stephen McKetsy says his daughters, 6 and 8, still don’t get to choose their full sports docket. As the sports manager for a Toronto community club, Mooredale House, he’s committed to having them try out a wide range of sports to learn a variety of physical skills.

“It’s not that they don’t like them, it’s that they don’t know,” he says. “So they go in and say they don’t like it, but they end up liking it. Which I’m sure is where Michelle Obama is coming from.”

In his family’s case, the toughest sell has been skating. “Some of these things are life skills,” he says. “I’m putting them in skating lessons because I want them to learn how to skate. There are going to be skating parties.”

Many parents, likewise, consider swimming non-negotiable, for safety reasons not to mention future summer job opportunities. Others consider team sports a good way to build character. McKetsy says golf is another sport parents think is good for kids to learn because it can be played for life and is considered an asset in business circles.

Critics of the Obama’s mandate say extracurricular sports should be a release from pressure, not a source of it. “It doesn’t make sense on a whole bunch of different levels,” says former competitive hockey player Vaughn Karpan.

The Vancouver-based NHL scout is concerned that pushing kids too hard can cause burnout.

“When you look at athletics – or anything you do outside of school, whether it’s athletics or piano – those should be a break from the things you have to do. Most of it related to school.”

In his family, he supported his teen son’s love of swimming – and never foisted hockey on him. “You can’t force kids into things. You expose them to things. Otherwise they’re following your dreams, not theirs.”

Karpan does suggest a middle ground, though. If a child picks an activity and then sours on it midway through the season, they should finish the session or season.

“The stick-to-it-ive-ness comes with, ‘You’ve picked something, you can’t quit,’” he says, adding that his philosophy is to separate the “issues from the itches.”

He recently sorted out an issue with his son, who, seemingly abruptly, decided to quit high-level swimming. When the sport began to be too much of a time commitment for his son – 17 or 18 hours a week – he supported the decision to stop.

Toronto parenting educator Doone Estey says the most important consideration is your relationship with your child. “Parents’ relationships with their children can deteriorate substantially if the parent plays the power card too hard and too often,” she says.

Estey admits to a little nudging in her own household to get one daughter to try rowing (which she ended up loving), but she suggests parents “save the big guns” for bigger priorities such as academics or avoiding high-risk behaviours.

McKetsy points out that parental involvement in their children’s organized sports is one way to juice interest. And coaches continually devise ways to sweet-talk Junior into loving the sport his parents have forced him into.

“Over time, you get them integrated. If it’s a good and positive environment, he’s going to respond to that.”

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