I wrote this post last year as Peter and I embarked on his first year of organized baseball. We have now started year two of our foray into organized ball. If any thing, its been a re-enforcement of last years observations. With minimal mastery has come even greater expectation. In that light, I’d like to share this again.
A rite of passage for every parent, and especially fathers, is when their child embarks on his or her first foray into organized sports. We all pretend that we just want them to have fun and learn the lessons that organized sports has to offer, but in the backs of our heads are lodged dreams of athletic abilities that will set them apart from other children and reaffirm visions of how special they are and by proxy, we are. Unfortunately, reality is often a whole lot different.
My four-and-a half-year old son, (I’ve learned that half year is extremely important), recently began his baseball career. He’s playing in a 4-6 year old coach pitch league. It’s provided me with an opportunity to begin my coaching career as well. I’m not sure which is off to a worse start.
Peter is an athletic child, you may remember me writing about his skateboard prowess at age 3, but surprisingly he’s not an overly focused child unless it has to do with super heroes, Star Wars, or Wrestle Wrestle E. It possibly has something to do with him being four-and-a-half. He enjoys practicing hitting, until, well he doesn’t. Throwing is all right as long as you explain why he’s throwing the ball and its importance in relationship to Luke Skywalker or Captain America. It helps if you can convince him that it’s an activity they enjoy. His favorite part is running the base paths, but he hasn’t quite grasped the concept that you have to be able to do the other two in order to do the latter. What I’ve discovered is that he’s pretty typical of other 4 – 6 year olds.
His first baseball practice was a couple weeks ago, and as I laced up my shoes I had visions of the drills and training that I would expose these children to. I was going to turn them into ball players. We’d be hitting and fielding for an hour twice a week, and by April we’d be a lean mean competitive machine ready for our first game. Of course we’d win that one and before you knew it, we’d be hoisting the trophy after the little league world series. I know, it’s supposed to be all about fun, but doesn’t winning make everything more fun and isn’t it important to have high expectations?
Three practices in and now I’m not sure if we’ll even win a single game. One child announced, as he lay on the field, that he doesn’t even like baseball. Another is much more interested in the individual blades of grass that make up the outfield than in catching a ball for the fifth time. Then there’s the child who got hit in the head shortly before practice, so he’s a little scared of it all right now. I could continue with the list, but I think you are getting the picture.
What I’d forgotten is what it is often forgotten when dealing with kids and education policy – they are kids. You can have all of the data, standards, best practices, best intentions, etc. , but at the end of the day they are real live, living, breathing, independent thinking children. Everyday they bring their own agenda to the table independent of whatever we were planning. Each has his or her own interests and the degree of those vary from day to day. By my observations, sometimes from hour to hour.
This is something I need to constantly remind myself. I have expectations that these children will begin to master the rudimentary skills needed to play the game but it’s more important that they learn to love the game. It’s not dis-similar from children learning to read. It would be wonderful if every child learned to read in kindergarten, but it’s more important that they begin to fall in love with reading. Every child develops at a different pace. If a 5-year-old can’t read by the end of kindergarten, it doesn’t mean they are a failure. It means they are still learning.
In that sense children are not any different than we are as adults. How many times have we bristled when others have tried to dictate our performance based on some piece of data? We love data as long as it’s not ours being used by others to predicate our behavior. When was the last time any of us said this to a co-worker?: “The boss told me that based on some data he had that I was capable of doing 10% more work a day. I’m going to buckle down and get that 10%.” My bet would be probably never. Yet that’s what we do to our kids and then wonder why they don’t embrace the learning process.
We test them endlessly, and then we use that data to create expectations that we foist on them or else we label them failures. They are expected to enter the doors of school everyday, 100% ready to learn, and focus on what we tell them is important. If, for some reason this doesn’t happen, well, then the schools are failing. We never for one second take into account that they are kids, and that sometimes rigor just isn’t appealing. They’d rather work on the graffiti they’ve been adding to their notebook instead of doing a little close reading of an informational text. They’d rather try to figure out if Suzy Johnson likes them than describe how they arrived at the answer of a math problem. In other words they’d like to focus on things that clearly relate to them right now and not things that will supposedly make them career and college ready.
In some schools, geared towards some kids, we flat out say that it is inexcusable to have interests outside those that are prescribed. We need to apply extra discipline to bring these kids around to what’s important. Their future is at stake, by God, and they need to embrace the lessons or run the risk of being labeled failures for life.
The last decade has seen a marked growth by no-excuse charter schools serving minority children who claim their policies are in the best interest of the child, but are they really? Isn’t the adult and the institution being measured at the same time as the child. It’s easier to attract investors if you can show measurable results and without a doubt, there is a lot of money in privatizing schools.
Try as I might, I can’t remember my schooling years as being as competitive as the environment our children now face. We took tests and there was an emphasis on doing well on those tests, but I don’t remember touting the results to demonstrate my superiority. My parents certainly insisted on me going to college but which one wasn’t the most important thing, and there was always an encouragement to develop as many interests as possible. It was ingrained very early that the process of learning was every bit as important as the result. Because education was a process not a competition.
At one of my son’s early practices, we were doing a catching and throwing drill. I would throw the ball to the child and they’d catch it and throw it back to me. The kids seemed much more interested in throwing the ball over my head than throwing it back to me, and I would try to correct them but with limited success. Their interest was beginning to wane.
To counter this waning interest, I came up with a game that if they caught the ball, they got a chance to try and throw it over the 20 foot fence behind me. If they didn’t catch the ball, they had to throw it back to me. Things got a lot more focused, and the kids started to have fun. The next practice came and half of them asked if we could play that game again. It had hooked their interest and provided a tangible result that they could grasp as opposed to a vague future promise.
At our last practice, I started a throwing drill that, after a couple rotations through, was beginning to wear thin. Again, I was faced with a dilemma of trying to keep them focused on the drill or give in to them being kids. I chose the latter and asked them if they wanted to run the bases. A loud positive chorus erupted, and we spent the last 20 minutes of practice running the base paths and cheering each other on. I know those last 20 minutes won’t help us win more games, but it may make a child a little more inclined to come back to practice and perhaps the next time be more prepared to practice the prescribed skills. It may not, but I do know that if they don’t come back to practice, they will never develop those skills.
We need to remember as adults that every minute doesn’t need to be dedicated to preparing a child to potentially win – or pass a high stakes test. Sometimes we need to do things that will instill a love of playing the game and not just a love of victory. Games, like life, have an allotted amount of time. Once it’s over, it’s over, and the thrill of victory is fleeting and what’s left is the feeling created by playing. The feeling of playing should be every bit as joyous as winning. If not, then we are left endlessly chasing the wins and losing that precious time between victories. As adults, it’s our responsibility to instill in children that living life is every bit as important as pursuing success. That it’s all right to take time to try and throw a ball over the fence for no other reason than to see if you can.
We used to be told as children, don’t try to grow up too fast. Now, we try to apply pressure to children to focus and perform at a level that most adults would rebel against. Most educators I know recognize this and attempt to remind us, as parents, of it. But when we allow legislators to create policy that uses children to rank adults, buildings, and institutions, it’s hard to allow children to be children.
These days, along with legislators, we’ve got hedge fund managers, charter operators, TFA Corp members with little to no classroom experience, and other education “experts” trying to steer us in the wrong direction. Parents and experienced teachers know better – we know children need time and space to be children, to learn at their own pace, and to experience all the highs and lows that come with learning something new.
We are heading down a path that soon will be irreversible. We are allowing our children’s lives to be data mined and privatized, stealing a time meant for the laying of the foundation of the life of a future parent, producer, and/or citizen. As parents, we need to empower each other to speak out and stop the misappropriation of childhood. After all, we all only get one shot at it and childhood should be dedicated to those living it, not the adults trying to hijack it to suit their agenda.