Tyler Blondi expected bone-jarring experiences playing football, but he never anticipated that the most memorable colli sion would come with his mother before he ever stepped on the field.
Blondi, 5-foot-5, 140 pounds, approached his parents about playing the sport before his sophomore year at Oak Park High.
"I said, 'I really want to play football. What do you think?,' " Blondi recalled. "My dad was all for it. My mom said, 'You're going to get killed!' "
Tyler, now a senior, survived and became a three-year starter on Oak Park's varsity team. Barbara Blondi also came through the experience relatively unscathed.
"If I had tried to say no, it would have been like nailing Jell-O to a tree--it just wouldn't have stuck," she said. "It's pretty scary for a parent to pamper a kid and then go watch a 400-pound kid tackle them. But you have to give them respect in their decision making. You have to let go."
Experts agree. Despite the real risk of serious injury, football, surfing, rock climbing, equestrian disciplines and other potentially dangerous activities provide young people with a physical outlet and experience to grow. Unless a serious medical condition would be worsened by their participation, when preteens and teen-agers express interest in those kinds of activities, parents are advised to keep an open mind. They should listen and become educated about the risks--and the precautions necessary to minimize them.
"Sometimes, parents jump from one end of the continuum to the other," said Charles Weinstein, a children's clinical psychologist in Encino. "It's either, 'No way you're going to do that,' or 'Oh well, it's your life.' Ideally, there is somewhere in the middle. If it becomes a tug of war, you're going to lose because you're cutting off communication."
Weinstein and others say that giving kids latitude in choosing sports allows their creativity and interests to surface. Kerry Dennis of Studio City said she and her husband, Craig, allow their sons Trevor and Dusty to take on just about anything they are physically and mentally ready to handle. Both boys ski and rock climb. Trevor, 11, also plays hockey and Dusty, 10, participates in equestrian activities.
"If they have a passion and it's what they want to do, what are you going to say? 'You can't do it?' " Kerry Dennis said. "You have to be sensible, and you have to take precautions in terms of qualified instruction, supervision and equipment. You can negate most of the risks, but you can't negate them all."
For many kids, the attraction of a particular sport is the risk itself. Conquering a big wave or traversing a sheer wall of granite are the rewards for taking on the challenge. Julie Sloane, an instructor at the Traditional Equitation School at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, said overcoming fear is part of the growing experience for many of her students.
"I've had kids that were really introverted and had problems in school, kids that won't even look at you or talk to you," she said. "Learning to ride helps them because it's one of those sports where you have to be aware of a lot of things at the same time. Once kids get comfortable, they feel like they have really accomplished something."
Some parents, however, find themselves overcome with fear regardless of the potential benefits for their children. A parent's anxiety can be minimized by taking a few steps.
For example, if a child will be playing on a team that participates in an organized league, talk to the administrators and coach about the risks and precautions. Talk to other parents about their experiences. Do some research about the sport. Find the best equipment available or affordable alternatives that are safe.
Jane Mead, a physical therapist and co-owner of Verdugo Fitness and Rehabilitation clinic in Glendale, said parents should consider a pre-sports screening with a licensed practitioner as part of the child's equipment budget. "There are a lot of questions that can be raised and answered by parents and the child during an evaluation," Mead said.
Experts agree, however, that there are instances when parents should exercise their authority and forbid an activity.
"If you have really strong, logical and rational reasons for saying no, you have to stick to them even though kids are going to be angry," Weinstein said. "But you can always leave the door open by saying, 'If you can show me evidence why this doesn't make sense, we can talk about it again.' If a child has a real interest in something, they'll make the effort to state their case. That keeps the line of communication open and gives both the parent and the child a chance to learn more about what they may be getting into."
Tyler Blondi said that happened with his mother once he requested to play football. She spoke with his coach, read about the sport and eventually offered suggestions after watching his games.
"My parents handled it the right way," he said. "Be cautious, but let your kids experience things. Sports have been one of the greatest experiences of my life. (They) keep you involved in something that is good and active. What more could you ask for?"