Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Take the fun out of childhood -- now!

Like most parents, I've spent good money after bad on sports and countless other activities that my children had determined, right then and there, that they absolutely had to do or their lives would come to a screeching halt, if not ruined altogether for decades to come.

"Don't you realize it's been my life-long dream to play the cello?" wailed my now-14 year-old son, after my wife and I told him, back in the third grade, that we were not going to give in to his demands to become a classical cellist. What our boy genius did not know that we knew was that students participating in the Wyngate school orchestra got out of third period twice a week to take lessons and rehearse for the off-key cacophony/screech-a-thon sometimes referred to as the elementary school orchestra. After we told our son that the school had changed its policy on students taking orchestral instruments to move their practice times to AFTER school rather than DURING school, his no-doubt sincere desire to enter the Greater Washington Jewish Community Center Hall of Fame as our people's answer to Yo Yo Ma disappeared even faster than the stashes of leftover Halloween candy that he and his sister have hidden around the house that they don't think we know about but actually do.

Then there was our daughter's inexplicable interest a few years ago for about two weeks in becoming a private detective. To this day, I'm not sure what that was all about. We think it had something to do with the outfits she might have seen Barbara Feldon wear in an old episode of "Get Smart." The forensics in determining my son's motives are much more transparently fundamental -- some how, some way, underneath the professed desire to become a marine biologist, special effects artist (the "fire phase" of 6th grade; don't ask), cellist or artificial snowball manufacturer is his not terribly well-concealed objective to do absolutely nothing. Yes, yes, indeed . . . the boy will stop at nothing to do nothing, and, in fact, spends more mental and physical energy attempting to avoid doing almost anything than if he chosen to simply do whatever Herculean task confronted him, like, oh, I don't know, almost anything.

Except for hockey. He'll get up at 5 in the morning to play hockey and stay up late to play it some more. Naturally, being a future player representative for the NHLPA, he will only skate during the allotted ice time. If we practice from 6.30-7.45 a.m., he'll be on the ice not a minute sooner and stay not a second later. If he does, he wants to negotiate the terms. The other kids? "Wow, free time! Thanks, coach," they'll say, and then skate they will. Mine. "If I agree to skate 10 more minutes, then you have to agree to take me to Game Stop or Fuddrucker's."

And video games. No issues there either. He'll play them early in the morning, as in 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., not 7 or 8 or 9 a.m. Sleep, too, is another favorite activity. There's never an issue getting him to sleep and letting the day fritter away, gentling snoozing while I throw his clean laundry at him in an effort to get him up and moving. My daughter's not nearly as driven by the same desire to sleep and do nothing. Her favorite activity is talking, talking, talking . . . in great detail . . . about everything she is about to do during the day, from the early morning wake-up call to the often futile efforts to make her go to bed. In our house, CNN stands for the "Claire News Network." Her unedited stories range from who has slighted her at the 4th grade table in the lunchroom to what earrings she should wear on her "date" with Dylan to the Wyngate Book Fair to demanding an answer to why Hillary Clinton will serve as Secretary of State (really)!

Our children have found their way into their interests and activities on their own. Once they've chosen something, we make them finish what they start. For Max, hockey, baseball, video games, learning the drums, video games and, especially, doing nothing are interests he needs no prodding to pursue; for Claire, talking, screaming, threatening me, dancing, fashion, soccer (if the jersey colors are acceptable) drawing, performing and shopping have all remained constant since she popped out of the womb and started talking, screaming, threatening me, singing, dancing, shopping . . . etc. For better or worse, they have figured out what they like and don't like, and we've let them do it, as long as it doesn't land them in jail or result in too many complicated explanations for us ("No, no, no, really, we had no idea that our son was using dynamite to blow up the mole holes in your backyard. Yes, yes, we'll talk to him . . . what? You want to thank him. Oh, well, yes we did encourage him back in 7th grade to steal combustible materials from the school science lab").

But I could have saved myself a whole hell of a lot of trouble if I had had the luxury of taking my kids to Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder, Colorado, to have them genetically tested to see what sports they would have the best chance to play well, so as to avoid wasting time and money on the soccer ball that has mostly been used in the house, and not for soccer; the Tae Kwan Doe uniform, tennis lessons, the recorder, the millions of dollars in Thomas the Tank paraphenalia, the 43 million pieces of Lego, several of which are still ingrained in my feet, Polly Pockets, the cooking books for kids and who knows what else. Yes, our children seemed to enjoy these different phases. But none proved a natural match for their, as of yet, untested genetic gifts to have their own cooking show, building and owning a railroad (coming complete with a federal bailout in the event it fails) or spot on the Olympic soccer team roster. As one mother who has enlisted the services Atlas put it:

"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it’s good to match them with the right activity," Donna Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which (2 1/2 year old) Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks. "I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration."

Note how the mom seems not the least bit disturbed by her own behavior as an absolutely off-the-charts example of modern micro-parenting. Her concern, rather, is that her child might get "labeled" as a gymnast so early on that he might not have time, with all the special training that will inevitably follow, to learn to play the mandolin, or even the cello, just because he finds it appealing. After six years of coaching ice hockey in Montgomery County, where anybody who is anybody must have a child play a sport beyond the recreational level in order to establish their credentials in the Good Parent Social Circle, I thought I had heard or seen it all. But genetic testing for toddlers to determine their sport? Damn, go ahead and take the fun out of childhood right now. Thinking about it a bit, though, there are no shortage of deranged adults who have been doing that for sometime now. Just ask their children, who often never step foot back on a field, ice rink or gym floor once they leave for college, how much fun it really was.

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