Social reproduction of two ex-Ironman triathletes: Why our kids like sports

Our family has fun working out together.

This morning, after the kids and hubby left for school and office, I was thinking what a wonderfully wacky and athletic family we have.  Our kids, a 14-year old son and 11-year old daughter, actually wanted to get up at dark-thirty (in multisport terms that means “pre-dawn” which was 5:15 this morning) and hit the gym with their parents.  This isn’t every morning and usually my son sleeps in until the last possible moment before school or friends or sports drags him away from dreamland. I asked him why he wanted to get up so early. It was still dark! “It would be a fun way to start the day,” he said. “The jacuzzi and a swim just sounds so good right now.” Similar response from our daughter: she likes to get her workouts “done in the morning.” She’s been running regularly since last Thanksgiving and she joined the local club cross-country team this Fall.

Our kids think that running and working out every day is normal.

I think that is so cool.

But why do they like sports so much when some of their friends seem to be allergic to sea water, “hate running,” and couldn’t stay on a skateboard un-assisted for longer a second?

Pierre Bourdieu, a French anthropologist,  said the goal of a family, culturally speaking, is “social reproduction”. Whether it is our conscious intention or not, our kids repeat our lives in one way or another.

Social reproduction: Praxa and doxa

In An Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu’s ethnography of the indigenous Kabyle tribesmen of Algeria, Bourdieu explains his materialist (socioeconomic) and post-modern social theories within the context of interpreting Kabyle cultural practices (Bourdieu 1977:vii).  In particular, Bourdieu makes a decisive break from his French structuralist predecessors by analyzing the human agency and strategy behind the practices of his Kabyle informants, or, what Bourdieu calls their culture’s assembled practices or praxis. Bourdieu believed that “society is constructed by purposeful, creative agents” who create their culture “through talk and action” (Erickson 2008:187). He believed that a cultural group or a society is united in “systems of relationships” and praxis and that have a natural order or “orthodoxy” that is promoted by the dominant group or authority. He calls this cultural authority, it’s doxa (Bourdieu 1977:169).

Our family is a prime example of what happens when two athletic ex-Ironman triathletes have kids.

Our family praxis is based on working out together. There are usually workout clothes and sports equipment somewhere on the floor of our house, water bottles on the kitchen counters, HEED and Cytomax tubs in the cupboards and wet suits and beach towels drying in the tree by the backdoor. We “play” every day. Nearly, every day since they were born our kids have seen Mom and Dad leave the house for a run, swim, bike, surf or do some other physical activity, alone or with friends. By watching us, they’ve learned that working out is fun and makes them feel good afterwords. With friends, it’s like a playdate. Soccer, rugby, swimming, taekwando, running, and junior lifeguards, our kids have been on a competitive team of some kind since kindergarten. When not competing, they are usually doing some sport just for fun like surfing, playing around on their skateboards or riding their bikes around town with their friends. Working out is just part of our family’s daily praxis. It is a part of our daily routine like brushing our teeth is in the morning.

Our kids have seen their mother push herself to try qualify for Boston and have their seen their father race the Big Sur Trail Marathon with the flue. (He survived fine thank goodness. We figured he scared the flu right out of him with that run–the old “in-hospitable host” theory of flu recovery).  They have also seen their parents go back to school and take entrepreneurial risks so they can be more competitive professionally and happier personally. We have had set-backs, been injured, and have bad days like everyone else, but pushing ourselves physically and mentally is a positive value in our family’s doxa.

If all of that sounds too good to be true, I don’t blame you for thinking that.  But how did we get our kids to join us working out? How did we get them to not rebel against a parental and cultural hegemony that extols a healthy and athletic lifestyle?

They gotta wanna

I think it is, in part, just as Bourdieu said: social reproduction. Our kids are only mirroring what we are doing every day. If they saw us read, compose songs, drink a lot of beer with our friends, or work longer hours instead of working out in the outdoors–they would probably seek and mirror those behaviors instead.

But I also think their choices are due to our high expectations and use of constant positive re-enforcement.  We don’t make them go running with us because it’s healthy, we encourage them because it’s fun. We ask them to just give a sport a try for one season, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to do it again.

The key is for us to encourage our kids to try new things, to  do their best, and to have fun.

Our daughter just started running regularly last year. Before that she really wasn’t in to sports. It was our idea when she was younger that she try soccer, Junior Lifeguards, and taekwando. Now, it’s her idea to go running and workout at the gym.

Our son got into soccer,  taekwando, and running, initially, because it was our idea. Now he runs and plays rugby because it is his idea. We tell our kids, “Just try it for one season. Do your best. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it next year.” If they don’t like a sport, that’s fine. It is important that they know that we are on their side.

It is also about those old fashioned words of parenting that I remember hearing when I grew up: “Just try it,” “Don’t quit,” and “Do your best.”  With the grueling cross-country races our kids have been enduring lately, our advice has been even more empathetic, “I know it’s hotter than hell out here and it sucks. Just do your best.” and “Don’t listen to that guy.  Just do your best.”  And, most importantly, and simply, “I’m so proud of you.”

The key for me is to make sure our kids’ main motivation is internal. They have to want to do well to really excel and be true competitors. They have really believe in themselves. As my old Masters swim coach in San Diego used to say, “You gotta wanna.”  Empathy coupled with high expectations are important values in our family doxa.

Old School

My childhood experience was not particularly athletic. As an admittedly non-athletic artist and family iconoclast who preferred books and horses to bicycles and health clubs, my single-parent mother  couldn’t relate to my desire to run the trails after school when I was a teenager. Or, to learn surfing, on my own, when I was 19. My mom didn’t even know how to swim. But to her credit, she always encouraged me and cheered me on  at dozens of cross-country races in high school and drove me to many a 5K and 10K race on the weekends. She allowed me to hang out at the beach, it seemed, nearly every single weekday, during the summer. She even bought me my first triathlon racing bike, a Specialized Allez, when I was in college. I rode that bike all over San Diego country in my twenties and decorated it with my product sponsor’s stickers. I heard “I’m so proud of you” a lot from her when it came to racing.

I’m an old school runner and triathlete. When I started racing, it wasn’t cool for girls to be a competitive runner. It was unusual. I was the only girl I knew to enter the first Los Angeles Marathon in 1986. My college training buddies were a Phi Delt and a Sigma Chi who were in my advanced running class. I think I was the only girl in that class, too. That first marathon was only two years after the first Olympic woman’s marathon ever at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. I did my first triathlon in 1987 as one of the few women in my age group and one of the few people who even knew what a triathlon was it seemed. I taught myself how to swim freestyle in Mission Bay in San Diego – trying to keep up with my roommate who grew up with a pool. Eventually, I found my way to the slow lane and some coaching at a local Swim Masters club in La Jolla. On the bike, I would train Dave Scott-style, usually alone, with a ziplock bag of Fig Newtons, a baked potato or a PB&J, stuffed into a fanny pack for long road rides and a bottle of water.  My training pals were usually athletic college students or young people trying to make money in the outdoor sports industry.

It’s an endurance sport culture

Nowadays, there are packs of brightly colored and jerseyed road cyclists all over our local highways each weekend morning. Nearly every town has their own running club, triathlon team and local Masters swim program.  Most of the multisport athletes, it seems are middle aged professionals. The doxa of American sport culture has changed since the days when I was a kid. Marathons, triathlons, and lately long-distance trail running (“racing ultras”) have gone mainstream (Helliker 2010).  Today there are about 1.2 million triathletes in the United States, up 51% from 2007, and according to last Sunday’s New York Times article, a third of them are men in their 40s (Gardner 2010). A few weeks ago, the Boston marathon sold out in less than eight hours. The proportion of women racing marathons have grown from 10% of the field in 1980 to 41% in 2009 (Running USA 2010). “Marathoning has soared in popularity in the United States. In 1976, 25,000 Americans finished marathons, according to Running USA. Last year, there were a record 467,000 American marathon finishers,” according to The Boston Globe on October 18th (Pepin 2010).

Our kids are turning out athletic like us. And, it appears to be national trend. Those wacky multisport events called “triathlons” and long-distance races we did in our younger years are conventional now. “Training for Ironman is the new golf!” an old Ironman training pal and multisport retail shop owner told me the other day, rolling his eyes.

I’m so grateful that both of our kids like doing endurance sports.  It has been so fun to workout together–as a family. I’m going to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

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Resources

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977 An Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, Pp.248.

Gardner, Ann Marie 2010 “Triathletes, Swim, Bike and Run for Youth,” New York Times, October 24, 2010, R12.

Helliker, Kevin 2010, “Making marathons even tougher,” Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2010; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703960004575427561884547420.html

Pepin, Matt 2010 “Boston Marathon sells out in a day,” The Boston Globe, October 18, 2010; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://www.boston.com/sports/marathon/blog/2010/10/boston_marathon_sells_out_in_a.html

Running USA 2010 “Running USA’s Annual Marathon Report,” Running USA; Retrieved on October 26, 2010, from: http://www.runningusa.org/node/57770