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Lessons in parenting - from the World Cup

French fans watching a match in Paris. One of the great joys of the World Cup is the feeling that you're falling into sync with other people. That's even true in France, where keeping your distance is a national sport.


I CONSIDER it a credit to my independence of spirit that despite being married to a journalist who covers soccer and raising several young soccer fanatics, I've managed to absorb practically nothing about the sport.

I can sit alongside them as they hoot and moan at players on TV, then still ask, after an hour, "Wait, are Spain the red ones?"

Despite this, I've come to appreciate soccer, and especially this year's World Cup. It's partly the free baby-sitting.

While my husband is in Russia for five weeks covering the tournament, I've relaxed our usual screen-time rules and let my kids watch every match until bedtime. It has been years - four, to be precise - since I've had this much free time.

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My affection for the World Cup isn't purely selfish; I also think it's good for kids. I'd heard that a few desperate fans jump off buildings when their team loses a key match - hardly the kind of loyalty I want to inspire in my offspring. In fact, my husband calculates that there are fewer suicides in the month that a European country's national team plays in a World Cup, thanks to a generalised feeling of community and togetherness. (There's no pent-up spike in suicides after that month, either.)

Even losing unites people, because they join in a high-stakes drama whose outcome they know is, ultimately, inconsequential. "It's a very safe escape from things that really matter, which is almost everything else in life," he said.

That "everything else" currently includes the dangerous nationalism taking root in Europe and the United States, by which immigrants and other foreigners are dehumanised and scapegoated, and leaders claim that certain countries are intrinsically worse. The World Cup, by contrast, offers an alternative, positive and tolerant form of nationalism in which you can cheer on your own country without denigrating people from elsewhere.

Indeed, watching the World Cup almost always means identifying with multiple countries. Even if your own team is playing, you can adopt another. A Frenchwoman I know whose parents emigrated from Morocco and who married an Egyptian told me her nine-year-old son was all-in for Iceland until it got knocked out.

When my kids and I passed groups of Costa Ricans and Argentines cheering on their teams at cafes in Paris, it was impossible not to share their anxiety and joy. My sons were especially moved by the Panamanian fans who wept with elation when their team lost 6-1 to England, because it was Panama's first-ever World Cup and its team had actually managed to score. I was moved that the scorer was a practically elderly 37-year-old.

And just following the games turns kids into cosmopolitans. Four years ago mine learnt to pronounce Belo Horizonte and Curitiba; they're now familiar with Volgograd and Saransk.

The World Cup's improbable country matchups - Peru versus Denmark! Portugal versus Iran! - seem normal to young fans. Thanks to Panini stickers, the soccer equivalent of baseball cards, they can recite vital stats on players from Senegal to Saudi Arabia. A French friend was surprised to learn that her six-year-old could pronounce the names of the entire Croatian national team.

One of the great joys of the World Cup is the feeling that you're falling into sync with other people. That's even true in France, where keeping your distance is a national sport.

Parisians used to dismiss soccer as a lower-class pursuit. But they've softened over the past few World Cups. Ordinary cafes in my neighborhood have morphed into sports bars for the games, hanging up flags from around the world and installing big-screen TVs. I have competing invitations to watch matches at friends' apartments.

My husband is now covering his eighth World Cup, and he marks the passage of his life by where he was for each of them. Though I still can't remember the difference between a corner kick and a penalty, I'll remember 2018 as the World Cup when I managed to read several books, cook a lasagna from scratch and cheer on Mexico's national team, just to stick it to Donald Trump. NYTIMES

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