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What Our Kids Could Figure Out -- If We Could Get Out of the Way

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Haven't we made a mess out of athletics for our children these days? Is it any wonder that most kids who are endlessly toted around as youngsters from one game or tournament to another by their moms and dads end up hitting the wall by age 15? For a host of reasons they find ways to quit, dashing the hopes of their parents who were counting on, minimally, family fame, and at best, college recruitment (and dollars) coming their way. Sure, the créme de la créme bring that on. But for the great majority of American youth, the endless series of youth soccer, tennis, hockey, or -- you name it -- games and tournaments, end in both emotional or physical burnout. And the lesson of the early-adult-driven-athletic regimes in our nation is this: Hey kid, we say we value competitive athletics, but what we really mean is that we value winning over participation, and if you are not contributing to the bottom-line victory, please find something else to do, and make way for the real athletes.

Call me a geezer, but in the old days, most of us rarely got to play on real-live teams before middle school at best. After school we were on our bikes heading to fields and backyards for every kind of game -- tackle football (no pads), stick ball, baseball, basketball, pond hockey, impromptu wrestling, or roof ball, to name just a few of the endless variations. Where were the adults, the referees, line judges, trainers, fans, and idling ambulance? Nowhere. We were on our own, and it was just right. We made the fields and determined the boundaries; we argued the fouls; we created the rules and the punishments; we kept the score. Did we argue? Often. Fight? Sometimes -- and it was short-lived. Did we ever end up in tears, jumping on our bikes and scrambling home when we were embarrassed or angry? Yes, but we'd come back the next day, because we wanted to keep our pals and be part of something. No point in sulking, because no one paid any attention to you if you did.

Most importantly, we learned to do this thing called "self-regulation." We learned to make decisions, adjudicate disputes, find equitable outcomes, and enforce the rules. We learned to take care of ourselves. No mommy, daddy, or referee robbing us of healthy and age-appropriate decision making. Today, the adults rule the world of children's sports -- and the kids are losers because of it. I know the reasons why: parents are afraid of giving the kids free time away from adult supervision: the ubiquity of drugs, gangs and unthinkable violence; the fear of what could happen to "my ____"; the legitimate concern that social media and gaming have come to dominate the lives of kids. I understand.

I have an idea. Bring the kids to the fields or courts or gym, tell them to make the rules and referee themselves, and then go walk a long way off. But this could never happen now. Why not? Something "unfair" might happen. Sonny will come running back to the parents crying, upset, claiming foul, and yup, the adults will come running right back and jump into the mix. And besides, how will my girl get recruited to college if we allow this kind of youth bedlam?

Is there any going back? Doubtful. But we have lost something precious. We inadvertently teach our kids that others and not themselves must be trusted to create equity and fairness. We teach them that it is not the sheer exhilaration of running, cutting, catching, throwing, falling, rolling, hitting, and breathing cold clear air in late fall afternoons surrounded by your pals under a distant setting sun that matters. Rather, it is about who wins, who plays, and who gets the biggest trophy (since everyone gets one for showing up and breathing).

Parents: back off. Give kids back their youth, and let them learn the joy of movement and friendship and fairness without your butting in. Our children can do this, but our constant adult oversight keeps them from learning how.

A graduate of Middlebury College, The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury and Lincoln College -- Oxford, and The Harvard Graduate School of Education, Michael Mulligan has worked at an educator for 37 years. He has served as the Head of School at The Thacher School (grades 9-12, national co-educational boarding school) since 1993. Email him at mmulligan@thacher.org.