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The Playing Fields of Suburbia

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Adult involvement may be a chief cause of children’s declining participation in sports.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “Youth Participation Weakens in Basketball, Football, Baseball, and Soccer.” In solid journalistic fashion, the article went on to document the decrease in sales in sports equipment, the many new interests competing for the time and attention of the young, and the opinions of various experts in health and physical education. A girl from an athletic family gives her reason for abandoning the track team in her high school in Ohio — too time-consuming — and high-school athletic directors blame video games for the decreasing participation in sports. “The causes of declines in youth sports aren't clear,” runs a characteristic paragraph. “Experts cite everything from increasing costs to excessive pressure on kids in youth sports to cuts in school physical-education programs.”

Kierkegaard, who isn’t quoted in the article, spoke of being “drowned in the sea of possibility,” and it is true that kids today are faced with a great many more possibilities for their leisure time than they were 30 or more years ago. Many of these possibilities come bearing screens: computers, smart phones, PlayStations, iPads, and other toys from what is now nonchalantly referred to as digital culture. In an odd way, life was richer without these gadgets, for then, kids could fall back on a toy that was much less expensive and vastly more educational. The toy was called the out-of-doors.

The Wall Street Journal makes no mention of what I suspect may be a chief cause for the slackening of participation in athletics among the young: the organization of play by adults. My boyhood took place during the middle 1940s and early 1950s, and I have only recently come to realize what a lucky generation mine has been. We have lived through 60 years of unprecedented prosperity. The males among us were too young for the Korean War and too old for the Vietnam War. Having been born toward the end of the Depression, ours was a low population cohort, and consequently we went through none of the torture of getting into good colleges that generations after us continue to have to endure; on the contrary, these schools pursued us.

We didn’t need adults. Moreover, we didn’t want them.

My generation was also born before play was organized, which was no small break. By organized I mean broken into leagues, conferences, and divisions, with adult coaches and parents sitting or standing around watching. This year, Little League baseball will celebrate its 75th anniversary, but I’m pleased to report that it hadn’t arrived in our neighborhood when I was a kid. Nor did parents come to watch us play. Fathers were at work; mothers, though not so many of them worked at 40-hour-a-week jobs as do now, nonetheless had better things to do with their time than watch their children at play. To use a term that, in another context got Daniel Patrick Moynihan in trouble, we grew up under the reign of Benign Neglect, and it was swell.

Insofar as the sports of my boyhood were organized, we organized them ourselves. After school and during the summer, we met on the school playground. We chose up sides for softball or hardball games. If we hadn’t a full contingent of 18 players, we played something called Pitcher’s Hands Out, which meant that we eliminated the right side of the infield and the right fielder. We also played a game called lineball, with just two boys on each side, or if there were only two of us, we drew a rectangular box in chalk on the wall and with a tennis ball played something called fast-pitch.

Things sorted themselves out so that each of us gravitated to his natural positions. (I played shortstop with a first-baseman’s glove on our schoolyard’s gravel field.) We had no umpires, but managed to settle arguments on our own. The same seat-of-the-pants organization applied in the autumn with football. Basketball was played at nearby Green Brier Park. Games were arranged with kids from other schools, public and Catholic, through boys — never through grown-ups. A kid on our football team even went to our local alderman, a man named Alban Weber, who sprang for football jerseys.  Somehow it all worked out smoothly.

We grew up under the reign of Benign Neglect, and it was swell.

We didn’t need adults. Moreover, we didn’t want them. Having parents watch would only have brought a new and not very useful pressure. Bad enough to make an error in a game among one’s friends; to have one’s mother and father witness it could only make it worse. Even more embarrassing would have been to have had one’s father get into an argument with an umpire or yell at kids on the other team.

With a single exception, I do not recall any parent ever watching us at play. My own parents couldn’t have been less interested in my minor athletic achievements. They never asked and I never mentioned anything about them. The one exception to a parent being on the scene came in high school with a man named Lester Goodman, who seemed to attend all his son Michael’s softball games. A Latinist among us dubbed him Omnipresent. Why the hell wasn’t he working, like the rest of our fathers, we wondered?

I’m pleased to discover that a psychologist at Boston College named Peter Gray, who specializes in children’s natural ways of learning and the value of play, seems to agree with me. In his view, adults who attend the games of their children are “reducing [their] children’s freedom to play on their own...  Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.” Amen, brother.

The study I am awaiting is one that will convincingly demonstrate that the greater the amount of attention a parent gives to a child, the greater the child's chance of failure as an adult. I myself, without any proof whatsoever, in the unsubstantiated manner of the pure essayist, am coming to believe it. “The battle of Waterloo,” the English of Empire days used to say, “was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Owing to the hovering, clinging, needless interference of parents in their children’s games, I wonder if we might someday say, “American adulthood was lost on the playing fields of suburbia.”

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “October is The Richest Month for Sports,” “Not Being There,” and “The Original Sports Magazine.” Alan W. Dowd ponders “Is Football on Its Deathbed?” Scott Ganz and Kevin Hassett contribute “Little League, Huge Effect."

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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