Watching my six-year-old grandson at his T-ball practice this spring, I was taken back to my time as assistant coach with my daughter Julia’s youth soccer team. (Assistant coach? What a misnomer that was, given my lack of experience and knowledge of the game. I was a glorified ball boy/gopher for the head coach. I had never actually seen a full soccer game in my life before Julia started playing at age seven, and I knew none of the rules, strategies or techniques of quality play.) Back to the present...seeing the four volunteer dads “teaching” Cade and his eight comrades the basics of the game of baseball set me to thinking about the pros and cons of organized youth sports, and indeed of the full range of adult-youth interactions in which the elders provide (impose?) instruction in the name of producing competence, if not excellence. Is this the best way to help our young people?
As with so many similar issues, I find it helpful to follow Wharton professor Russell Ackoff ’s advice to “begin with the end in mind.” When asked, “What’s your goal?” almost always—whether in sports, art, science, math, music or pretty much any other area of interest—an adult’s first answer will be some version of “to have fun” or “to learn to enjoy” whatever is being explored. Cade’s coach’s opening statement was a case in point, as predictable as dirt on a ballfield. They were there to have fun and to learn how to play baseball well.
Unfortunately—and this may be my biggest concern of all in of my exploration into the role of adults in the lives of our young people—almost everything that follows the goal of fun-making seems to work in the opposite direction. The implication that we’re going to play (play ball, play music, play with numbers, etc.) is quickly converted through instruction into work: drills, rules, techniques, facts— everything needed to master something, to get good (or worse, become excellent) at it. All too often, this also means to WIN against some opponent, and/or to impress parents or some other audience.
There have been books written about the “professionalization of childhood” and the loss of “natural play.” Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn takes this even further and describes how, in indigenous cultures, play replaces schooling as the preferred method by which young people learn to fulfill the functions of adulthood. They play at hunting, for example, and all of its sundry components such as tracking, running stealthily, shooting and spearing, hiding, and the like. It’s skill-building, for sure—someday their lives will depend upon their success—but/and during the learning process, it’s all in the name and spirit of fun. For one thing, they can quit any time they want. For another, they learn to collaborate, to get along with everyone else, because without their friends, there can be no game, or at least their play will be severely limited. In short, whenever the primary goal of having fun is at risk, the youths amend their practices and put all other considerations, such as improving competencies, aside.
I am embarrassed to say that I failed almost entirely in this regard in my intervention into the lives of Julia and her soccer teammates. We (her primary coach and I, and virtually all of the other coaches Julia encountered in soccer camps, “select” teams, and clinics) defined fun as winning (winning the game, winning the ball), or beating their opponent (with a slick move, aggressive tackle, wicked shot, etc.). They played in scorching heat and bitter cold, sometimes three sixty-to-eighty minute games a day, three days in a row. For what? To sing, “We Are The Champions”? To feel worthy of carrying home a trophy or wearing a tee shirt that said as much? For bragging rights for the parents? I am getting closer here to the eventual goal for all too many families: to gain entrance into the college of your choice, maybe even earn a college scholarship. (Almost none of Julia’s teammates achieved those goals, as it turned out; most even stopped playing soccer beforehand, having burned out from the absence of fun.) It seems that the only time there was much sense of joy was if they won or in the moments immediately after scoring a goal.
My concerns, however, extend far beyond the field of sports and even the concept of fun, although the fun factor is integral to my next point. Even when parents and coaches don’t become crazy about winning, the emphasis on skill development and the acquisition of knowledge can still undermine or extinguish a youth’s interest in, or even passion for, a particular topic or subject matter. (“He can identify all of the trees in our woods,” “She was selected to play in the youth orchestra,” “She knows more algebra than I’ll ever know,” “He knew his times table before he was seven.”) I remember back to John Holt’s magazine Growing Without Schooling (GWS), when parents would contribute descriptions of their experiences as homeschooling families as a way to seek help from peers or share their insights. I read a letter from the mother of a pre-teen who invited a cousin to come visit them in their rural setting hundreds of miles from the big city. The cousin was known to be a “very good student who got all As.” Her pre-teen host was less academically inclined but quite well-developed in her knowledge of the natural world around her and also quite competent in her ability to function in the practical world. The GWS article described how the two girls had gone into the woods and spotted a songbird that they both wanted to identify. The visitor’s response was to take out her guidebook and look up what she saw with her binoculars. Her host simply listened closely to the sounds the bird was making and said, with authority, “Oh, that’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker” (or some such thing; I don’t actually recall what she said, but I remember that she was right, to the total amazement of her cousin). When her cousin finally found the page with the picture that matched what they saw, she provided confirmation. She couldn’t figure out how her host had figured it out without a guidebook.
The point of the letter, and my point here, is not that there is no value in being able to find information in books, but rather to suggest that the visiting cousin’s experience of birds was merely academic. She seemed to have no appreciation for the live animal and no ability even to recognize it, whereas her host loved birds, knew their music and the other aspects of their being, and could rely on her own resources to identify them.
I think that this incident can legitimately be expanded to suggest that it is symptomatic of far too much of adult life—worklife, that is. The adults that I know who truly love their work can always trace their interest back to childhood experiences when they had fun playing with some element of their future career. Perhaps they just loved going to the shore years before they became oceanographers, or loved playing with Lego motors before they became mechanics or engineers, or loved cooking before they became chefs or nutritionists or food technologists. The list goes on and on, and it contrasts with those unfortunate adults who are stuck in jobs they hold onto merely for the income that it provides.
How, then, can we help the coming generation learn to create income-producing work that is based on what is fun for them, where they enjoy the process at least as much as the product of their efforts—where the effort involved doesn’t feel like “work” at all? I think that we parents (and grandparents, and coaches, and facilitators, and even teachers) can take an enormous step in this direction by truly keeping our own focus on the fun aspects of any activity with our youths. When and if they ask for instruction (“How can I get better at hitting the ball? How can I grow my own blueberries, or make my own ice cream, or bake a cake that tastes good, or make this guitar sound like the one on the CD?”), that could be a time for our input. But only as much instruction as they ask for, in bite-sized pieces, and always with an eye toward retaining the fun factor. Life is too short for anything else, and if we cripple self-motivation, we take the real fun out of living.