When did “playing” turn into “performing?”

My daughter diving in a competition with her club team at the East LA City College pool.

My daughter in the yellow cap.

Back in the ancient days when I was growing up, all our neighborhood kids gathered in the evenings on our dead-end street playing work-up softball. I was one of the younger kids at five or six years old while the kids controlling the game were in junior high and high school. I stood for countless hours in the outfield and never once made it up to bat. The big kids were at the pitcher’s mound, catcher, short stop, first base and swinging the bat, of course. It did bother me that I never left the outfield before our moms would stick their heads out their kitchen doors and call us in for supper. But, I was happy to be included with the big kids. We were playing a game. And guess what? There were no coaches, no officials, no parent volunteers and not a single parent watching!

Fast forward to today and you don’t see kids playing pick up games around the neighborhoods. They aren’t playing football, softball, basketball or any games at all. Instead, moms and dads drive their kids to ball fields, swimming pools, gyms, etc. to practice with other kids on organized teams. These teams have coaches, referees, uniforms, fees and parents. Yes, parents are all over the place — watching, volunteering, providing snacks — and in some sports, coaching.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing in itself. I just miss the days when kids played outside. Of course, kids in my day and age were on teams, too — but they also had time to play without adult supervision just for the fun of it with their friends.

What happens when kids aren’t out playing with their friends, but instead are playing in front of an audience of overly involved adults? Playing becomes performing. Parents are sitting watching their kids’ practices and more than ready to give them the full low down critique on the drive home. At meets and games, parents fill the stands and are yelling, cheering, pacing and showing their displeasure at officials’ calls, other kids that are competing and even their own kids. They are also ecstatic when their kids do well. I should know since I went through the gamut of emotions myself with my two kids.

I didn’t realize that kids aren’t out playing on their own these until I read a book called “Why LESS is MORE for WOSPs* — *Well-Intentioned, Overinvolved Sports Parents” by John M. Tauer, Ph.D. Because my kids were swimmers and we have to take them to the pool for their sport, I didn’t notice the lack of kids playing in the park. Dr. Tauer, a psychologist and college basketball coach, talks about how kids he coached in a summer basketball camp would rather sit on the bench than play in a game without adult officials. He had five groups of kids rotating in four games with officials. He gave the kids a choice to sit out the fifth game or else play the fifth game on their own. All of the kids chose to sit it out, mainly because they had no experience just “playing” without adults supervising.

From the book:

“One of the consequences of parental involvement is that parents watch many of the games their kids play. That means many parents know if Billy has been in a hitting slump, if Jenny has been struggling with her shooting, or if Tommy made a mistake that allowed the winning goal. Thus, children may feel their performance is being evaluated and monitored not just by teachers and their parents, as with school, but also by their peers and other parents. Instead of playing, children are performing, which can undermine one of the major goals of sports. This shift from playing to performing affects both children and parents negatively. Most children don’t take math exams with dozens of parents watching, cheering, hollering, encouraging, yelling, or even criticizing the performance. Imagine how odd it would be to see parents show up for exams at school and then spend hours dissecting their child’s performance at home. Why then, do we accept those same behaviors as normal for WOSP’s at sporting events?”

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My son in front wearing the yellow cap.

Some interesting things to think about: Why do you think we’ve shifted in our society to no longer letting kids play to having them perform? Have children changed so drastically through the years, or is it our parenting? I’d like to hear your opinions, so please share your thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “When did “playing” turn into “performing?”

  1. I think it’s a cultural change. It became less acceptable for parents to not know what their kids were doing every second of every day, and the shame of not being a good enough parent may have led to helicopter parenting, and organized children’s sports, and now parents can judge eachother by how many show up to the practices/games, and how many facebook pictures of their children’s awards ceremonies, etc, they have.

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