Thursday, August 24, 2006

Guest Commentator

Sometimes, a few words capture the essence of a big and complicated issue.

A few days ago I was a guest on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (now available online). We had a great discussion of Little League and the future of youth sports and childhood in America.

For me, the highlight came when Rehm read an email from a listener.

Earl Newman of Redford, Michigan, wrote the following:

"I am 70 years old. I learned to play ball from the other kids. Little League baseball did not really reach critical mass until the 1950s, too late for me. In my opinion, they ruined the game. They have taken it away from kids. They have robbed it of spontaneity. They have greatly inhibited young people's self-reliance, and I think (although I do not have the data) that fewer kids spend fewer hours actually playing the game than when I was a boy. This is not good for baseball. Uniforms, schedules, sponsorships, and adult domination are all outcomes of this movement. Perhaps it would be more fair for me to say it is [just] different from the game I knew as a kid. But in the process, although they might have added something new, they have obliterated something that was good."

This is not just a sentimental man looking back on his own carefree days. It's a strong and fair critique of what happens when we manage and control more and more aspects of children's lives.

Childhood, ideally, is about two things. It's about learning skills and it's about exploring the world.

Skills give kids the tools they need to negotiate the world. As they grow into adulthood, kids need the skills taught in schools -- reading and writing, math and science. But it's not just academic skills that matter. Sports and other extracurricular activities matter because they help kids round out their repertoire. Kids also need to learn how to get along with other people -- superiors, peers, and everyone else. They need to learn how to settle conflicts.

But skills alone cannot create a well-rounded person. Everyone also needs to embrace the spirit of exploration. And there's no time to do that like childhood, when everything is new. It's great for people to embrace goals and passions. But they can't really do it unless they've explored a whole range of possibilities.

Youth sports can be a great experience. But it's always got to be kept in perspective. Here are a few questions to ask to decide whether it's in fact kept in perspective:

-- Does the young athlete participate in a wide range of activitiies besides baseball?
-- Does s/he have lots of free time -- with only loose supervision by adults -- to explore a wide range of activities?
-- Does the child play games -- with made-up rules -- with other kids in school and in the neighborhood?
-- Does involvement in a sports team shut off other opportunities that s/he might otherwise consider?
-- Do the adults supervising the sports team show, by both word and deed, that playing is what matters -- not winning?
-- Are the lesser kids on the team embraced as enthusiastically as the stars?
-- Who are the kid's real, everfyday role models -- a sports star or someone in the circle of family and friends?

This is not intended to put down Little League or other organized sports. Sports can play a great role in the lives of children. But when it becomes something more than a game -- especially at the tender age of 11 or 12, or even the teenage years -- something basic is missing.

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