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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Dead End

When I was a kid, we used to gather at my best friend's house to choose up sides for softball. We would call kids from around the neighborhood to see if they could play at a place that we called The Dead End.

I'd like to romanticize the place and say that our Dead End abutted a railroad yard or a river, when, in fact, it really was at the end of a street that had no outlet. What it had at the Dead End was a colonial house with a wraparound porch with rocking chairs on it that belonged to this old lady who wore dark glasses most of the time and was an heiress to a popular hat company fortune. The house was big, but it was in disrepair, a sign that at some point along the way the bloodlines outlasted the money, a predicament which occurs more frequently than most people remember. The old lady was a nice woman, and it was only years later that we discovered she won the U.S. Women's golf title at some point in the 1920's.

You shouldn't get the picture of big, McMansion-type estates with sprawling backyards, long driveways and family rooms the size of your average big-city sports arena. Yes, there were lawns (they were small), and yes, there were backyards (not big enough to do more than have a short catch), and no, there wasn't a good park within walking distance. Hence, the Dead End.

We gathered there to play softball, being careful not to pull the ball to a spot in one of the yards where we knew my good friend walked his dog (there were no "Curb Your Dog" rules or courtesies extended then), or to anywhere near the house where the guy who owned a cemetery (it turned out that he owned a bunch of them and made a fortune, garnering a headline in the local paper when he sold them when I was a young man) would threaten to call the police, I recall, if we hit the ball too high and too far. So, we developed the "Dead End" swing, which was to wait on our timing so we could hit the ball down the street to dead center field as far as we could. And, if you launched a long ball there, you were certain to hit a home run. We usually played two or three to a side, and we played until the sun went down.

In the winter we went to the top of the street that was near the Dead End to sled, and in the fall we found a vacant lot or two next to the bigger houses several blocks to the north to play tackle football (naturally, with tons of old sweatshirts and no pads). We played three on three, four on four if we were lucky, and typically we played with kids that we went to elementary school or junior high with. When we were tired of football or softball, in the warmer weather months we could walk to the old junior high to play tennis or we played basketball on the rather large outdoor court that was part of this huge driveway of a house that friends of my parents owned. Day in and day out.

We didn't have travel soccer, we didn't line up to get our black belts by the age of 10, we didn't have lessons upon lessons. Some kids did, but they came from families with a more intense focus on sports, more money, or both. We just played because we needed something to do, we liked to compete, we liked each other's company and we liked to dream. No one could have told us that our games didn't matter. They did, to us, and we played hard because that's the only way we knew.

We walked, sometimes a mile each way, to play tennis or to play basketball somewhere. Sometimes, I confess, we got rides, and sometimes we rode bikes, but we got out there and we hoofed it on occasion. We got a lot of exercise we didn't even know we were getting, and we learned a lot about human nature, resolving conflicts, and getting along with others. There wasn't always a parent along as a chauffeur or a supervisor, and while we could have used one on occasion, we ended up creating our own senses of equilibrium that helped us make the games enjoyable.

The Dead End, the basketball court at our friends' house (which was uneven in spots), the junior high's tennis courts (that had some cracks) and the empty lots on which we played were far from perfect. But they were what we had, and we made the most of them. The Dead End, as it were, created a lot of possibilities for us, most of them good.

There's a different dead end looming today for kids, and perhaps it is that they don't have dead ends to play at any more. No more open lots, and not always three-on-three games of basketball at the large enough court in the backyard of a house in the neighborhood. They just don't do anything spontaneously anymore, and they do nothing without supervision. There's karate, there's travel soccer, there's T-ball, there's the sight of high school-aged girls playing endless softball games on local fields, as many as 80 games in a summer. A friend from work told me a few years ago that his elementary-school aged kid was interesting in trying wrestling. He received a call from a dad in the neighborhood, asking this young boy (he might have been in second grade) whether he was willing to make a four-year commitment. At the age of 7!

Uniforms. Chalk lines. Schedules. Structure. A desire to figure out whether Billy can possibly turn into the next Freddy Adu and whether Sally can weave through a crowd like Mia Hamm. Parents chauffeur Winifred to ice hockey practice at 5 a.m., when the ice is available, and then they drive her to places like Poughkeepsie and Oneonta for weekend games against other kids her age. They hope that Jared can peg a baseball from the outfield well enough to make the travel team so that Dad can drive a minivan full of third graders to Hohokus one weekend and then to Frederick, Maryland the next. You know the story. Families aren't together, as one parent drives the van and the other stays at home, and it isn't as though the American family is thriving to begin with.

I still haven't figured out whether all of this structure and all of this competition is so good for kids at such a young age, and I don't want to sit in judgment of it. On the one hand, as has been pointed out to me on many occasions, we live in a very competitive world, so introducing kids to competition at a young age certainly can't hurt. The argument is that they might as well get used to it, and if they're going to play games they might as well learn how to play them right.

The argument to the contrary is that we're not letting be kids, that we're burning out some of our best athletes young, that they get tired of the games they're supposed to enjoy because there's no joy in being constantly on the go, and, inevitably, that these games for kids at such a young age are more for the parents than the kids.

I can't help but believe that the parents are well meaning, but I also can't help but believe that some parents are living vicariously through their kids. Some kids certainly thrive on the competition, and some need it. Better that they be kept busy working on their games than bothering other kids in the school yards because they don't have enough outlets for their energy. Other kids are getting false confidence in their abilities when they play in leagues where everyone gets a prize or when everyone at their dojo gets a black belt, perhaps because the parents are paying a goodly sum in fees for the privilege of the belt. And yet other kids just aren't ready for such extensive commitments to competitive sports at a young age. Organized games once a week might be just fine for them, and, I suspect, for a majority of the kids out there.

I supposed I'm concerned about a dead end because we're taking the imagination, creativity and spontaneity out of our kids. Do they create their own games anymore? Or is it simply a world in which they listen to their iPods full of downloaded music, play their Game Boys, play on their Play Stations, and then go to a league with rigorous practices and schedules that might make a rookie league baseball team jealous? And then, when they have free time, they crash, by themselves, because they need to. And then there's homework, religious school, and perhaps taking up a musical instrument. Or scouting. And not much free time.

All with schedules. All with supervision. All with being told what to do.

At a very young age.

All of the time. Or so it seems.

My Dead End was full of possibilities. We could be Willie Stargell one day, Doctor J the next and then Roger Staubach the following day. We could talk about various things, from the weekend's games to what was going on in the neighborhood to, well, just talking about life. And, as we found out as we made our way through elementary school to junior high school to high school, there was a lot more to life than just a bunch of games.

Most importantly, we built friendships that were forged more out of a kid's character and sense of loyalty than our abilities to kick balls, punch dummies or hit the cutoff man. The friendships were based on more than that. Much more.

So today many parents push their kids into a heavily scheduled world of sports activities whether or not the kids want to fully engage or not. Some do it because they have thought it through and think it's the right thing to do. Others do it because they hold out the hope that in the ever expensive world of college educations, junior might be good enough to catch the eye of some coach somewhere. Or he could even be good enough to make money at the sport. Finally, many parents embark upon this course because everyone else is doing it and they don't want to be left out, and they fear that their kids will be left behind.

And, for many, they'll hit a dead end.

Which is a shame.

Because the last time I checked, games for kids were supposed to be a healthy portion of a young kid's life. And a fun, too.

And maybe for many kids the games do have a proper perspective, and the kids so have fun.

Let's certainly hope that's the case.

And let's remember one fundamental principle -- we need to make sure that we let our kids be kids.

Because being a kid is a precious time in anyone's life. And if we make them grow up too fast, they'll lose a most precious thing that they'll never be able to get back -- their childhoods.

So take your kids to these games, to practices, to lessons, to Sheboygan, Altoona, Shawnee Mission, Flagstaff, Walnut Creek, Edina, Metairie, Ocala, Durham or anywhere else for a long weekend of game after game. There's nothing wrong with it, and with the appropriate emphasis, there could be a lot right with it.

Just remember also to take them for ice cream, to show them a beautiful sunset, to play roofball, to watch a parade, to go to the aquarium, to take the time to build friendships, to laugh about silly things with their friends, to fish the big creek at dusk, to put on a puppet show, to help the elderly neighbor prune his bushes, to try to cook breakfast for mom on Mother's Day and not mess it up, to play chess, and to teach them that they are supposed to enjoy everything that they do, especially their games.

If you do all that, you won't hit any dead ends. You'll just create new possibilities.

Every day.

And you'll let your kids be kids.

Which is what you're supposed to do in the first place.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow.

That was a great article, both in style and topic. It bothers me that when you drive through neighborhoods now you never see kids playing games. Sometimes you'll see a few kids riding skateboards, but never any stickball, touch football or some made-up game.

I have two small boys and already I wonder if they'll have the opportunity to just play goofy games or will they have to play organized sports because that's what all the other kids are busy doing. It's too bad. I love sports, but it can be too much. Kids don't always need coaches and uniforms and stuff.

Good piece.

Dave (www.davesez.com)

4:55 PM  
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