Why You Need To Play Catch With Your Kids

Clues on Kids #013

You should play catch with your kid.  It sounds simple enough.  Yet many parents overlook the importance of this profound activity.

Profound?  My kid and I have more important things to do.  Isn’t homework a higher priority?

Not always.  Homework and studying for tests are certainly aspects of learning and developing an education.  However, childhood is not a purely academic pursuit.  There should be so much more to a child’s life than just learning fractions and having impeccable grammar.

But school is my kid’s job.  Getting good grades is all that really matters… right?

Your child can aim for a 4.0 GPA but if she is miserable and has no sense of herself outside of being a straight A student, your kid will have a tough time succeeding in the world as a child and an even more difficult time as an adult.  If your kid doesn’t feel loved, appreciated and enjoyed by you, her insecurities will overwhelm her and she will be in danger of making some drastic and risky choices later in life in an attempt to find a sense of safety and belonging.

Family all on electronics disconnected from each other compared with family playing catch outside


Winning the class spelling bee won’t make your child develop self-confidence all on its own.  Your kid needs to have the tools to recognize her own self-worth.  These tools are not innate.  YOU must teach them.  If she can learn the ability to love herself, she has a better shot of acknowledging her strengths and seeing them as part of her own identity.  This sense of self is intrinsic for her to feel more confident, thus helping her to eventually tackle adulthood in a healthy manner.

So how does playing catch help my kid build his self-confidence and “love himself?”  

Let me first explain that playing catch is not a supernatural event that miraculously grants unlimited courage, gumption and happiness.  It is however, ONE way to connect with your kid and let him know that you think he’s really cool!

Think of playing catch as a non-verbal conversation between you and him that speaks to his unconscious.  Every time you throw the ball to him, you are nonverbally communicating to him that you see him for the wonderful person he truly is, that he is important to you and that you enjoy spending time with him.  When you catch his throw, it’s as if you are saying to him that you accept him, and his thoughts and feelings are valuable, and that you love him.

Holy Moly!  That sounds like a big load of you-know-what!  For Pete’s sake, it’s just throwing a ball.  You make it sound like a psychic game between a Jedi Knight and a Free-Lovin’ Hippie!

Maybe so; but more than likely you and your kid need to create this time more often so that kind of magic can happen between the two of you.  The time you spend now to build and regularly maintain that connection with your child will benefit the both of you during her teenage years.  You are guiding and helping her now so that she can have a stronger self-esteem later – something that she’ll proudly display her whole life.  Kids do not get this stuff overnight.  Your daughter doesn’t just wake up one day at 18 years old and enter the adult world with confidence, courage, self-assurance, and pride; UNLESS… she’s had a childhood filled with somebody (hopefully you) showing her that she’s really liked as a person, she’s fun to be around, and really great to talk to.

So often we parents get lost in our tedious day-to-day responsibilities and forget WHY we are doing all those tasks in the first place… so we can raise healthy families and ENJOY being around them. Sure, playing catch sounds simple but it really helps to open up the doors for some great conversation; and at the very least, a quiet acknowledgment that you’re on her side.

As the parent, you have tremendous influence on how the environment for the interaction between the two of you is created.  Think about some of the following things.

How often do you:

  1. Make eye contact with your child?
  2. Share your appreciation and love with your child?
  3. Relate to your child without judgment?
  4. Get on her level and get excited about the things that make her excited?
  5. Laugh so hard, you both cry?
  6. Get excited to share your day with your child?

Doing these things on a daily basis will drastically reduce any tension you might have about the everyday stuff like brushing teeth, doing homework and chores, etc. Above all, you are actively teaching your child to see herself in that same positive way.

I don’t know.  It sounds like you want me to be some kind of overly soft pushover.  How is that going to teach my child self-worth?

The idea is not to be a pushover; it is to help your youngster develop a strong self-esteem and a healthy identity as he transitions to adolescence.  Your child’s identity is largely established by his relationship with you, his parents.  The more positive interactions he has with you (while still maintaining appropriate limits and calmly enforcing house rules), the more his self-esteem will be validated.  He will feel stronger, more empowered and happier.  The more self-assured your kid is, the more likely he will be able to make wiser, more thoughtful choices.

Finding the balance between enforcing the boundaries while remaining compassionate and showing unconditional acceptance can be challenging.  However the more you strive to find that balance, the more your child will understand your intentions.  This will ultimately lead your kid to being more cooperative with you, thus reducing those unnecessary arguments… another win-win result!

One of the most important lessons to learn in all of this is that when you actively accept and love your kid unconditionally, it sets the example for him on how to accept himself.  This becomes a valuable tool during the teenager years.

Okay, I get why it’s important.  But it seems that we always get into some kind of argument when we play.  How do I help her throw the ball right without her getting so upset?

I know it’s easy to get caught up in things being done right, being effective, and getting to the top in today’s results-oriented world.  However, playing catch is less about perfect form and more about having fun.  To support that thought, I’d like to paraphrase a great quote by Teddy Roosevelt:

Kids don’t care how much you know,
until they know how much you care.

In other words, you have to build a sense of trust and safety with your child before she will want to benefit from all of that wisdom that you want to share with her.

When playing catch, if you can focus more on being silly and sharing a good time with her, you will eventually earn her trust and she’ll welcome an occasional helpful hint on how to improve her throwing motion.  Just remember that it’s better to have your kid giggling while throwing awkwardly than her having a great throwing motion but hating every minute of it.  You strengthening her ability to feel loved will pay many more dividends than training her to be a professional ball player.

Oh, so can I use this special bonding time to get him to understand how important it is to finish his homework?

No, this is probably not the time to talk about troubles with homework, chores, fighting with his sister or anything else that might be a sore subject, unless HE wants to bring it up.  While this may sound a little hokey, playing catch is a sacred time to connect with your child and strengthen your relationship so you can broach those topics later without too much conflict.  After a few trips to the park where the two of you have consistently enjoyed your time throwing a football around together, you may discover that this hallowed time is when he feels the safest with you, and he’ll invite you into his world by coming to you for help with his life’s struggles.

Rest assured, if all you’re doing is strengthening your rapport and trust with him without going into anything too deep and heavy while playing catch… that may be all he needs and in fact you really ARE doing your job as a parent!  Helping your kids feel loved, appreciated and valued is a big part of a parent’s job in raising happy, healthy kids.

I hate to admit it, but I don’t even think that I know how to play catch.  Am I doomed never to connect with my kid?

You might feel klutzy, uncoordinated, foolish, dumb, and totally incapable.  That’s perfectly OK!  In fact, your Far-From Babe-Ruth throwing arm can make this activity all the more effective in trying to connect with your kid.  Really!  Just get out there and try it!  Trust me!

MORE effective?  All it would produce is a big laughing fit from my kid.  Not laughing with me, but at me.

Sure, maybe… if you’re taking this really seriously and not having any fun with it.  Let’s try to imagine this scenario instead…

You’re playing catch with your kid, and it’s no secret that you’re horrible.  You throw one and it nearly gets stuck in the tree.  The next one you throw sends your mitt flying off your hand practically hitting the little grey schnauzer walking by.  You are both laughing (so hard that you can barely stand up straight) and now even the ducks have learned to stay away from you… far, far away.

Am I describing your athletic abilities pretty accurately?  Despite feeling incredibly awkward, you are helping your child learn:

  1. That you don’t need to take yourself or life too seriously.
  2. That you’re willing to do something that you’re not that great at.
  3. That you are not required to be perfect.
  4. That you don’t care if other people see you as not perfect.
  5. There’s always room to improve as long as you keep trying.
  6. You don’t give up easily.
  7. You like to have fun.
  8. You are capable of being silly.
  9. You like being with your kid.
  10. You’re not afraid to try.

I’m sure I could come up with a few more reasons why those of you who did not get the Olympic gene should play catch with your kid but I hope you feel these first 10 reasons are enough to get your started.

Try to keep in mind that this activity is not about being a good player for either of you.  It’s about having fun… PERIOD!  So take the focus off of how well either of you are doing and pay special attention to the fun parts.  Make it a point to acknowledge her efforts, instead of focusing on her successes.  Phrases like:

  • Wow, you threw that one really high in the air!
  • Amazing that you caught THAT ball!
  • Aahh! You were so close that time… let’s try it again!

These are all examples of adding positive encouragement to the nonverbal communication of playing catch.  This time should feel very liberating to both of you.  Neither one of you are getting graded.  The only rule is: there are no rules… absolutely no expectations!

Listen, I just cannot play catch.  I can’t bring myself to do it.  I hated it when I was a kid and I hate it now.  I don’t even think my kid likes to play catch.  What then?

If it’s your freshly manicured nails that’s stopping you or perhaps your kid just plain refuses to play catch, find another activity that helps the two of you have fun together.  I am not against TV or movies as something fun to do; however this type of entertainment is passive.  I encourage you to instead find something else fun that is active and promotes positive interaction between the two of you.  For example, you can bake cookies together, do a jigsaw puzzle, color, ride bikes, build a model, or even make up funny dives off the diving board (just not in December).  Perhaps kicking a soccer ball is a little easier for you.  How about a good old-fashioned board game or cards?  If your kid has trouble tolerating competition, there are many cooperative games out there where everyone playing is working together as a team to win the game.  Check out your local independent toy store to discover several wonderful noncompetitive family games.  As long as you are actively enjoying your time together, good connections are bound to come out of it.

Remember, you only have so much time before he grows up and becomes a teenager. If these connections are made now, and maintained regularly, then those teenage years will be easier to handle because you’ve already done the work to keep that door open for more serious (and laugh-until-you-cry) conversations.

(updated article from February 2010)

Kids should be allowed to make mistakes on their own.  But they don’t have to be alone when they try to learn from them.

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