A Test for Bad Parenting

Genetics say your daughter will be a track star. But what if she just wants to play Barbie dolls?

Armageddon’s here. Science—or pseudoscience—is developing genetic tests that purport to tell parents which sports their kids are destined to excel in. Researchers have been keying in on genes that govern various athletic abilities, including a variation of a gene, ACTN3, that has been linked to the bursts of strength that make for world-class weight lifters and sprinters. Now you can buy these tests online to plot your kid’s future: Just let me swab your mouth, honey, and we’ll know for sure whether you should concentrate on basketball or track.

This is so wrong in so many ways.

“Our goal is to help people become the athlete they were born to be,” says Nat Carruthers, operations president for Atlas Sports Genetics, which makes a kit that tests for variants of ACTN3. It only costs $169, and can tell you whether your budding star should concentrate on endurance sports, “sprint/power events,” or both. Atlas insists the tests aren’t meant to be exclusive, but rather inclusive: “Knowing this information may be helpful, not in eliminating sports activities but [sic] adding exposure to a host of team or individual sports events,” the website says.

Sic is right. What if a kid wants to become the athlete she wasn’t born to be—if, though her genes scream soccer, she’s in love with volleyball, or ping-pong, or water polo? Or what if, God forbid, she doesn’t want any part of sports, even if Dad’s dying to shell out for the test? Is anybody creating gene tests for kids with science acumen, or an artistic bent, or mechanical talent, or—hey, what if?—human kindness? Of all the assets science could single out, why focus on athletic ability?

Because even when kids aren’t competitive, parents are. These tests will only be fuel for Tiger Moms and Dads, and give them permission to scream at their offspring: “Baby, you were born to run!” I don’t suppose it’s worth pointing out that hereabouts, the athletes we love tend not to be those with loads of built-in talent (hello, Kobe, Pat Burrell, Donovan McNabb), but the unlikely heroes (A.I., Jamie Moyer, Jeremy Maclin) who triumph due to true grit. Alas, there’s nothing sexy about a persistence genetic test.