THE CHILD in the purple sneakers has just engaged in his first act of vocational engineering by choosing the job of "doodle bug"—or was it "poodle bed"?—for his toy bear. With his mouth full of Goldfish, it's hard to tell what future he wants for the stuffed animal he's about to bring to life at a mall in Trumbull, Conn.
Think of the Build-A-Bear Workshop as a Frankenstein movie set for the Nickelodeon crowd, a store so brightly colored it's like being trapped inside a bag of Skittles. The customer—the child perched on his mother's hip—selects a fuzzy bearskin, which is then pumped full of stuffing. After that, "you get to determine the bear's personality," a saleswoman tells me, pointing to two walls of pint-sized chef smocks and farmer overalls and football uniforms. (Suddenly lyrics from the Village People pop into my head.) The child is supposed to pick the bear's profession, but from what I could tell, the moms and dads in the store were getting all stage-parenty. "All the dads want them to be New England Patriots," laughs the saleswoman. What proud father wouldn't want a Tedy Bruschi in his child's life?
Now, thanks to a company in Boulder, Colo., all that Build-A-Bear parental meddling can be applied to Build-A- Chicago-Bear parental fantasies. For $149 Atlas Sports Genetics offers DNA test kits to help moms and dads choose the perfect athletic careers for their children. Parents swab their kid's cheeks, send the sample to the lab and, within a month, get a report on ACTN3. A particular version of this wonder gene tells the body to produce actinin, a protein found only in fast-twitch muscle fibers. Knowing that can help determine whether a child is best suited for the sprint requirements of the NFL or the endurance needs of a marathoner. The journey of discovery for children, of finding their own identities through sports, can be cut out through a middleman in a lab jacket. "It's disturbing," says Dave Czesniuk, the director of operations at Northeastern University's Sport in Society center. "It plays into the [obsession] some parents have with accessing a pot of gold—a college scholarship or pro contract—through their children."
It's hard not to feel squeamish about DNA science entwined with sports; the notion conjures images of swimmers with hex bolts in their foreheads and of cloned sprinters named Dolly. It's another step toward genetic engineering. Since a story about the impact of ACTN3 ran on the front page of the Nov. 30
New York Times
, hundreds of potential buyers have contacted Atlas. "It's one tool of a bigger package for understanding athletic performance," says the president of the company, Kevin Reilly, who acknowledges that some customers believe it offers far more. "People like CSI-type shows, and with this science they think we're going to breed kids to be certain kinds of athletes. For any parent who believes this test will mean their child is going to sign for millions to play for the Buffalo Bills, they'll be disappointed."
But do not be bummed, OCD sports parent. There is a cheaper, more efficient way to develop the ultimate child superstar with the help of chemistry: sex, or at least when you have it. What a saliva test may not achieve, Barry White and some candlelight can—if you accept the argument in Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. According to Gladwell the potential bounty of athletic prowess isn't so much in the genes as it is in a child's birth date.
Consider Canadian junior hockey, in which the cutoff date for age eligibility is Jan. 1. "A boy who turns ten on January 2, then could be playing alongside someone who doesn't turn ten until the end of the year," Gladwell writes, exploring why a disproportionate number of elite hockey players have been born in January and February. "In preadolescence, a 12-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity." The older athletes gain all the benefits of age bias: They're viewed as better because they are bigger, placed on teams with superior coaching and chosen to play in all-star games that enhance their development. Gladwell finds similar results in U.S. baseball, in which cutoff dates for most youth leagues have been July 31, meaning, as he writes, "more major league players are born in August than in any other month."
So the methods are clear for parents hellbent on the intelligent design of an athlete: Get a kit or get a room. Just remember, there is no exact science for a happy childhood.
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