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September, 2016

Why I’m Embracing My 8-Year-Old’s Fantasy Football Life

By Jennifer Merrill

“Throw it long, Tom! Throw it long,” my 8-year-old son screams as the Patriots attempt a conversion against the Giants during Sunday football. But wait … my son is a Giants fan. He was Odell Beckham Jr. for Halloween. He sat frozen at MetLife stadium to cheer on Eli, and has scoured through bins at our local card store to find the coveted OBJ and Victor Cruz rookie cards.

And now, together, we watch, hoping Brady finds his target and connects. That’s because my son is playing Tom Brady in his first foray into a Fantasy Football league, and boy, have allegiances been compromised, frustrations been dealt and parental consent to such an activity questioned. However, after a season “watching,” here are the invaluable positives gleaned from Fantasy Football and parenting:

The numbers game. In a way the most stimulating, advanced curriculum could never engage, my son has learned not only to calculate by multiples of 3, 6 and 7 with the adeptness and speed of a mathematician, he has gained an understanding of algebraic concepts far above a second-grade level. He has learned the more challenging manipulations involving scenarios: If they score a touchdown, but miss a 2-point conversion, they will win. An interception coupled with a sack could only be salvaged by a field goal. This holding, manipulating and processing of mathematical data (mental math) strengthens working memory, a key to successful executive functioning.

Fickleness or flexibility? Fantasy Football tugs on our traditional sense of team loyalty, but does so in the service of cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust thinking or attention in response to changing information, goals or stimuli. This consistent working and reworking of scenarios and “what ifs” scaffold the development of more sophisticated thought and nourishes advancement from immature thought into a space more able to form hypotheses and consider possibilities. The ability to change one’s mind and opinion when different facts or scenarios present themselves is a skill developed and refined only by practice. And trust me, no Fantasy Football season is exempt from extensive practice.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. A book by this title, authored by Wendy Mogel, artfully outlines the value in allowing children to fall down and figure out how to recover. I am a psychologist, and while I believe Mogel’s lessons to be essential, I’m aware how increasingly difficult they are to practice in our anxiety-rich world. However, the lesson of Jordy Nelson’s bruised knee provides a tempered way for a child (and parent!) to experience disappointment without substantial personal loss. When my son’s coveted first-round draft pick was injured in the early weeks of the season, he experienced regret and dismay but had no choice but to problem-solve and rebuild his team. Unlike his own sports teams, teacher placements or camp groups, where parental intervention is often tempting and easy to rationalize, this was something we couldn’t shield against or influence. As he experienced sitting with the uncomfortable, unsettling feelings of unfairness, hindsight and regret, he gained a tremendous deal more.

Delay of gratification. Fantasy Football requires measured patience and tremendous frustration tolerance. Week after week, my 8-year-old worked to build a team worthy of accruing points greater than his opponents’ teams. More importantly, a team that appeared the victor after a Thursday night performance was often not victorious come Monday night. No matter, a season is lengthy and tumultuous, and Fantasy Football is nothing short of a waiting game. Good practice for life.

Planning and reflection. Elementary school educators highlight the importance of children learning how to plan and reflect, and emphasize how both promote development of thinking and reasoning. Planning involves more than merely making a choice, but making a choice with intention. When my son considered which team’s defense to play given the opponent’s offensive line, or decided which kicker to start based on whether the home field was indoor or outdoor, he was planning ahead with intent. Week after week, he had to think about a course of action, recognize potential problems and anticipate consequences. Subsequent reflection on the strength and weakness of his choices allowed him to plan for possible corrections, and consolidate knowledge.

Prediction. Scores from previous weeks and expert projections provide information that must be prioritized, filtered and assimilated with other information to form predictions. Research has suggested that a child’s practicing prediction contributes to the development of emotional intelligence and empathy. They can better gauge social interactions based on predicting how the other will feel or react. Working with predictions also provides a helpful reminder that predictions are a best guess and may not always prove to be correct. Like books and their covers, predictions don’t always hold up.

Instincts and intuition. My 8-year-old’s weekly agony deliberating who to play and who to bench was often decided by his gut. We want this skill developed in our young. It’s this very instinctual feeling that may protect when confronted by danger and prompt a good choice when confronted with questionable options. Studies have supported that our intuitions can often sense danger before it could be explained by the rational, analytical part of our brain. Unfortunately, because this part of our brain is not triggered often, we aren’t as familiar with its feeling, and are prone to overlook or disregard its presence. The more this feeling registers, the more it will be trusted, and the more likely it will serve as an additional decision-making tool during their tween and teenage years. So, against initial hesitation and thoughtful deliberation, we have allowed our son access to the consuming, competitive world of Fantasy Football (with no money exchanged, and no prizes other than a small winner’s trophy and bragging rights). Warily, we acknowledge this may prove to be the longest-running commitment he will make to any extracurricular activity. And mistakes will be made. Just like in life.

September 13, 2016