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 (excepting those run by high schools) and replace them with programs organized and run by the children themselves.
Each child who signed up to play a certain sport would be assigned a letter of the alphabet. Every week, a designated website would announce where the children in each letter category would be playing. So, for example, one week all the A, M, P and W children would be playing at High Ridge Field at a certain time on a certain day. The same website would also assign three adult supervisors to each game, none of whom could have a child playing in said game.
The kids would gather at the game site and 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.
This plan would ensure that the “teams” were different from game to game, every child would participate, every child would play both with and “against” every other child, and most important, the children would manage their own play. 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. When I was a child, for example, older kids taught the younger kids how to play a sport. Today, adults teach kids how to play. The respective outcomes are as vastly different as the methods and I contend that the benefits to children of the former arrangement are superior, by far.
No one took me up on my offer. Lots of people told me it was a great idea. A handful of folks even made the attempt to establish the plan in their communities, but support was lacking in every instance. The idea died of malnutrition.
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 overinvolvement 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.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.