Athletic talent is instant karma for the social status of any young man. In modern American mythology, the quarterback is the hero.
It’s easy for the athletically-gifted boy to be well-respected and popular because he is always among the biggest, fastest, strongest, and most coordinated boys in his grade. Anytime there is a physical contest, which is pretty much every hour of every day in a boy’s life, he succeeds. He gets picked first – maybe second – every time. And that is just the beginning of the fun. Win or lose, his God-given talent is on stage for all of his peers to see, sometimes garnering instant applause. Later, he will bask in the glory of hearing others review some great move or play he made. His friends will enter his bedroom to see a wall full of trophies, ribbons, and medals. In high school, he will see his name and picture in the local newspaper. It’s “The Life” for a boy.
For the most elite athlete, he doesn’t feel the NEED to be a good student, have a witty personality, or have great social skills. In some cases, he doesn’t even need to practice as hard as the others. He just needs to put on his shoes and go play ball and success happens because he has IT – the gift of athleticism. So, he gets self-esteem automatically, friends easily, and it can spoil him to the point where he is no longer developing in other important areas. His peers allow him to coast – and not grow up well.
And so it is with the beautiful girl. Everybody knows who she is. From the earliest age, people stare at her, trying to figure out what makes her so pretty. What’s her secret? All of her pictures turn out well because she is naturally photogenic. Her facial features are perfectly symmetrical with high cheekbones and bright eyes. Her skin is clear and bright. Her hair easily folds into the latest hairstyle, and her figure just gets better each year. She is Venus, goddess of love and beauty, who needs no decoration or modification. In modern mythology, the beautiful cheerleader is the goddess who captivates the hero.
She simply smiles politely, and everybody adores her. She doesn’t have to speak intelligently, get good grades, or have a snappy sense of humor. Her name is written on binders at school, and all eyes are on her in the halls. While some are jealous of her, most girls want to be with her, in the hopes that some of her beauty will rub off on them. She can be boring, and kids will still want to be around her, especially boys, for they are attracted to her beauty, regardless of her other shortcomings.
It’s not fair, but it’s real. It’s the economy of the adolescent world, as well as the media (the broker of adolescence). Male athleticism and female beauty are commodities, and it seems like everyone wants a share. If you don’t think it’s a commodity, then just take a look at the salaries of professional male athletes (click here) and female models and actresses (click here). It’s all just a part of the landscape of America. We love our athletes and our beauties, and we are happily paying top-dollar to see them at the box office and in the stadiums.
The problem is that in the real world where real adults live and work and play, you only get so far on sheer athleticism or beauty. Those characteristics fade fast after college. Of course, it never hurts to be an ex-jock or an ex-beauty queen; however, in the real world, in which you and I live, you need a whole lot of other qualities and skills, such as:
- Intelligence & mental discipline
- Problem-solving skills
- Conversational skills
- Patience & perseverance
- Knowledge (breadth and depth)
- Inner strength (guts)
- Communication skills
- Winsome sense of humor
There isn’t much you can do about the fact that kids will judge each other first on athleticism and beauty. Yet, you can train kids to see through that thin veneer and to learn the value of all those other skills and qualities that they will need in the last 60 years of their lives.
Here are some thoughts on raising kids who can swim in the deep end of life:
1. Use the power of words. Kids need to hear so much more than “Great game, Jack!” or “You are such a pretty girl.” Instead, praise them for their creativity in solving a problem or the way they encourage their teammates. Praise them for the gutsy way they deal with being sick and making up all their school work on time. Praise their character when it’s good, and correct it when it’s really bad.
2. Point out real role models. Point out real people who are really impressive, not just celebrities. (I’ve already written enough on this topic for a while – click here for more.
3. Give kids opportunities to do new things that stretch them. Don’t let them get too comfortable. Examine how they spend their free time, and make sure that it’s diversified among a variety of activities with varying social situations (arts, worship, service, scouts, sports, etc.). Just beware not to over-schedule them.
4. Show and tell them about your world. Kids need to get glimpses of what they will be doing later in life. Use the dinner table as the place to introduce them to the larger world (don’t let them just get it from TV). Take them to work once a year. Talk about what your friends are accomplishing in their careers. Kids can learn to understand and eventually appreciate those things.
5. Keep their eyes on the road ahead. Make sure that they see that life is a long journey and that youth is the best time to try new things and learn what they can and can’t do well. Help them learn who God has made them to be, and guide them in the way that you think will maximize their long-term success and significance. And remind them that there is an after-life, so even 100 years is a short-term view of life.
The bottom line is that kids need to develop a wide base of skills and characteristics. They must not be allowed to lean too heavily on the crutches of athletic talent or external beauty because those crutches only last so long. Quarterbacks and cheerleaders make great prom kings and queens, but it’s not going to translate to real world success or significance unless those kids grow up in other ways. Throwing a 50-yard spiral won’t help you much after you are 30. And that perfect young figure changes fast after birthing a few kids and that metabolism slows way down. Better have a backup plan or two.
Left on their own, kids will not grow up well, but with adult care and guidance, they can be well-prepared for a truly significant and rewarding life throughout and well beyond those “glory years” in school. Well-rounded kids can handle what life throws at them, long after athleticism and beauty are irrelevant.