Thirty-something years ago in this column, I offered a free (expenses-only) speaking engagement to any community that would abolish all adult-organized-and-run children’s sports programs (except those run by high schools) and replace them with programs organized and run by the children themselves.
The kids would choose two captains. The captains would toss the bat or flip a coin, to decide which of them got to choose first from among the available players. Once the two teams were constituted, the kids would decide who would play what position, which team would go first, and so on, and the game would proceed. If a controversy arose, such as whether a certain ball was fair or foul, the children would settle it among themselves. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the supervising adults would not interfere in the game unless their involvement became absolutely necessary — a child became injured, for example.
People my age — baby boomers — will recognize that my plan recreates, with adult supervision, the “sandlot” games that we played as kids, when our sports were play, not performance — or, to be precise, the only people we were performing for were other children.
It has long been my contention that since adult-organized after-school sports replaced sandlot games (sometime in the 1970s), well-intentioned adults have been robbing children of significant opportunities to develop negotiation, management and leadership skills.
No one took me up on my offer.
But maybe, just maybe, a new book will bring it back to life. In “The Self-Driven Child,” neuropsychologist William Stixrud and educator/entrepreneur Ned Johnson argue that the child and teen anxiety and depression epidemics are largely due to parental over-involvement and micromanagement in everything from children’s social lives to their homework. Today’s kids simply do not enjoy enough control over their time and activities. They are so thoroughly managed from waking to bedtime (the authors also point out that today’s teens are not getting enough sleep, a factor that greatly increases their emotional vulnerability) that they don’t even know how to make good decisions when it comes to spare time, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many of them — especially boys — spend so much of what little time they can control playing addictive video games.
Having adequate control over one’s life is essential to feeling competent and developing emotional resilience as well as the sort of coping skills that are essential to dealing functionally with disappointment, frustration and failure — inevitable aspects of life. Stixrud and Johnson have written a book that every parent should read and heed.
If they do, perhaps communities will begin taking me up on my offer. It’s still open.