Why I Let My Kids Play Fantasy Sports

First, there were Pokemon cards strewn all over the carpet. Then came Magic. These days, their game of choice is fantasy football. I’ve set up accounts for each of them online (I am aware of the age limit of the site, and am responsible for–and have access to–each of their accounts). For the second year in a row, my three sons are in two fantasy football leagues–one with their friends, and one with extended family.

So now, well into the season, I have to ask myself (as I do with every parenting decision) whether I made the right choice. Whether kids participating in fantasy sports is a good thing or if I’m being too indulgent. Because frankly, if I have to listen to another conversation about how many points so-and-so got, or whether player A for player B would be a fair trade, I will go bald from yanking my hair out, one painful chunk at a time.

1. Lessons in Empathy
My initial concern (other than my sanity) is what it teaches kids about empathy. One Monday morning, I listened as the kids in the carpool discussed a recent injury of a player. The initial reaction to the news was to wonder how it would affect his fantasy team. What adjustments would he have to make to his roster? Not: “Gosh, I hope he’s okay.” (In my imagination, I’m allowed to have kids say “gosh.”) Not: “What will that do for his long-term livelihood?” (Similarly, they can commonly use terms like “livelihood.”) Or: “How serious is that injury?” But: “How does it affect my game?”

That certainly didn’t sit well with me, and I said so. Kindly, of course. And the kids were duly chastened. So, hey, score one for teaching moment.

But on the other hand, we want to raise resilient kids. Kids who can move beyond their own scrapes and bruises and keep playing. We want our kids not to dwell on a “woe is me” feeling when they fracture their wrist and need to wear a cast for three weeks. We want them not to be limited by their hardships, but rather to work around them and find other strengths lying dormant within. We want them not to wallow in self-pity but to find the silver lining.

So is it fair to judge them for expecting the same of others? That’s not to say we cannot remind them that they did suffer and that they should be compassionate. But maybe the overthink-everything side of me could take a vacation here.

2. Appreciating Individuals
Growing up, I played my own version of fantasy football. My group of friends would make predictions on the outcomes of each game. It was nowhere near as complex a pastime as modern-day online fantasy sports where leagues can be set up with complicated scoring schemes and where you need to coordinate schedules to conduct an online draft (finding a time that fits into multiple time zones and after-school activity schedules).

But it got us paying attention to more games than just those of our home team. Some may decry this as a waste of beautiful fall weather, but we did not spend all day Sunday watching football when the weather was nice. With the lure of sunshine and bikes, we usually returned inside to check the final score when we were summoned for dinner.

My kids, too, will drift to the front yard and toss a football around so long as the rain doesn’t fall and homework doesn’t beckon. What we did learn, however, was that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the “bad guys” to our Cleveland Browns and that we viscerally disliked the Michigan Wolverines as we donned our scarlet and grey Ohio State garb.

On the other hand, Fantasy Sports removes the allegiance to teams. By focusing on the talents of individuals, my boys are less likely to root blindly for just the home team.

They can cheer on the Ohio State grad while purposely drafting a Michigan grad because his stats are better. When a player is suspended for drug use or domestic violence or, worse, when they’re reinstated without suspension, my kids learn about it. In that way we, as parents, have ample opportunities for valuable dialogue.

We know that kids are incredibly focused on fairness. Asking them to consider whether the NFL ruled correctly in a certain situation offers them a chance to recognize that life isn’t always fair, that there is room for improvement in society, and that just because a company offers glitz and glamour, it doesn’t make them a moral authority.

Our kids are still developing their moral compasses, so letting them feel the outrage at injustice is good. While I don’t want them to learn how to treat women from the NFL, there are other lessons they can learn about choices and consequences, about high stakes and perseverance. There are stories both good and bad, and anything that reminds kids that teams are made up of individuals is okay by me.

3. Analytical Skills
Before the draft, my kids did research. They looked online at reliable sources to assemble a roster of players they’d like to draft, plus backups in case their choices were unavailable.

Each week, they review their lineup, monitor the injured reserve list and bye weeks, strength of opponents, and other crap I don’t have the patience to check myself (which could explain why my team is 4-6), and make adjustments.

They make trades and work to improve their rosters. And much as I cannot bear to listen to another discussion about the fairness of a particular trade, I recognize that they are developing valuable skills that will serve them well long-term. Listening to kids discuss the not only whether a trade is fair, but if it’s right to trade with someone who may not be as astute a player, is satisfying. They are flexing their moral muscles, and while I don’t always know what they ultimately decide, the fact that they are continuing to have these discussions and are concerned as much with being fair as with winning reminds me why I still half-listen to these commute-time chats: because I have the opportunity to gently nudge them with a well-timed suggestion if they get too win-hungry.

4. Humanity in Competition
The benefit, and bane, of playing fantasy sports with school friends or family members is that everyone knows one another. A little friendly trash talk can be funny if tastefully done, but in the end, kids are less likely to resort to meanness or over-competitiveness if they actually know the other people in the league.

They’re far less inclined to insult the family members who will be buying them Christmas presents, right? My boys aren’t much for chatting online, but this environment could be considered a safe introduction to social media and chat room etiquette, so long as they only participate in the family league.

There is, of course, the perpetual risk that misunderstood chat room banter can lead to a really awkward Thanksgiving dinner, but given the context of game-related trash talk, it can also be a safe place to make those mistakes. Pushing a joke too far with my family is less risky and less apt to be considered social suicide. On the other hand, depending on the family, it can lead to trouble elsewhere. But again, being involved and aware of the problem can help you point your kids’ ethical compasses in the right direction.

5. Time Management
We’re honestly still struggling with this one. It is too great a temptation to spend every minute monitoring the stats, to check scores, to update rosters. It can be as bad for them as my Facebook tendencies. (Hi, I’m Nivi, and I’m a Facebookaholic).

But knowing we have a problem, it’s possible to be cognizant to detect when it becomes a problem for them. So there is no logging in until homework is done and no ceaseless discussions about trades. Especially with me. Because as much as I love my kids, I refuse to participate in the same conversation over and over with someone who is developmentally able to do otherwise.

While I respect the need to double-check your roster before game time, if your behavior leads to taking away screen time, then I am not making an exception for your fantasy team.

6. Forging Connections
For a while, I listened to the Wiggles. Even today their songs can bring a smile to my face (as long as it’s heard only in passing) as I remember my first-born’s enthusiasm for them (he even had a Wiggles-themed birthday party when he turned 3). I’ve watched my fair share of Dora. But I rarely played with BeyBlades or some of their other short-lived obsessions. I want to share interests with my kids, but sometimes I just can’t. It doesn’t matter if the shared activity isn’t a weekly trip to the museum, or volunteering together to wash puppies at the local animal shelter, shared interests build bonds. Which helps build trust, which helps when things go wrong. Getting to know your kid in an arena where you both have equal footing allows the child to become an expert and build confidence (but not too much, since the inherent risk with fantasy sports, where a player may not perform as expected, reminds your kid to be humble).

Overall, Fantasy Sports in and of themselves are not harbingers of evil. As with anything other childhood fascination, they do not have the power to corrupt your children. All too often, we parents tend to operate on extremes–either permitting completely, or banning outright at the first offense–when moderation is called for. And education.

As long as you’re involved, engaged, and attempt to take an interest in this potential shared activity, participation in fantasy sports can actually benefit your child in many ways. The key, as with any other activity, is setting reasonable boundaries and making sure they stay within them.

Or, as Mad-Eye Moody would say, “constant vigilance.” But as parents, we already know that.

Nivi Engineer is a novelist and playwright in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a mom of three boys, and escapes the never-ending sports calendar through reading. This month, she's learning that the capital of Tajikistan is Dushanbe. And now, so will you.