My seven year old son hung his head low as he walked off of the baseball diamond after his game. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “this is our third game, and I still haven’t gotten on base.” My immediate reaction was sympathy, followed quickly by a sense of failure as a dad. If I had been out practicing hitting more with my son, he would be better. If I had limited his time with video games, he would be more athletic. If I had been more focused, he would be more focused. If I would have pushed, he would have succeeded.
I was quickly caught up in the story that infects so many parents, one Jay Atkinson captures so well in his recent “How Parents are Ruining Youth Sports”.
Three out of four American families with school-aged children have at least one playing an organized sport — a total of about 45 million kids. By age 15, as many as 80 percent of these youngsters have quit, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. One reason is the gap between the child’s desire to have fun and the misguided notion among some adults that their kids’ games are a miniature version of grown-up competitions, where the goal is to win. . . . too many families are searching the Internet for a private batting instructor, a summer hockey program, an expensive strength camp, and that elusive AAU coach who can get their 11-year-old to improve her jump shot.
This story is not just about sports. We see the mentality reflected in a lot of places, not the least of which is childhood education. It is a standardized system that rewards success on a narrow set of skills, typically measured by achievement tests. We pressure children to succeed in preschool to start on the right educational track for college that will land the six-figure job, the ultimate sign of success
It is ultimately a story about how to succeed in life. It is an echo of the industrial revolution when the “assembly line” changed from a process to a worldview. Start something down the line, and, with all the right steps, success falls off the conveyor belt. This success is something tangible, measurable, quantifiable. You can use it to compare yourself or your child to others, and, if it is not too late, you can fix the situation to better ensure success, whether it is a GPA or a batting average.
We should be really wary of this story for two reasons. First, stories are powerful. They capture our imagination. As Daniel Kahneman noted at the end of Thinking, Fast and Slow, stories are the fundamental way in which we act in the world. Peter Block argued, in Community: The Structures of Belong, that stories are what define and organize a community. Ken Bain explains that what the best college teachers do is to help students construct stories so they might retain data, organize knowledge, and establish a foundation by which they might learn more. Without stories, we cannot function as people or a society. We cannot think, or even learn to think, without stories. They grip us and guide our lives. If they are bad stories, they are bad for life.
This is the second problem with the story. It is a bad story. It is bad because it does not lead to success but to a strangled, truncated existence. It is a story that has no room for creativity, friendship, family, community, faith, hope and love. It is why educators are rethinking their approaches to teaching. It is why the most high profile tech companies have required employees to work on their own projects and most of their developments have come from this unstructured time. This bad story’s consequences are seen in the social disengagement of GenXers and Millennials.
Dickens saw and mocked this story 160 years ago with Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir — peremptorily Thomas — Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositions, no existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind — no sir! . . . . . Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.
John Chrysostom warned parents over 1600 years ago not to teach their kids this story.
If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. . . . . Don’t worry about giving him an influential reputation, for worldly wisdom, but ponder deeply how you can teach him to think lightly of this life’s passing glories, thus he will become truly renowned and glorious . . . Don’t strive to make him a clever orator, but teach him to love true wisdom. He will suffer if he lacks clever words, but if he lacks wisdom, all the rhetoric in the world can’t help him. A pattern of life is what is needed, not empty speeches; character, not cleverness; deeds, not words. These things will secure the Kingdom and bestow God’s blessings. (from On Marriage and Family Life)
The next day, after my son’s baseball game, was his first communion. (After all, it is first communion season as well as baseball season.) There in the church were gathered his family, his godparents, his cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, a number of his friends from the church and school. He went up front with the rest of the first communicants during the homily and the consecration. He bowed his head and received first communion. The whole gaggle of family and friends came over to the house for a reception. My son smiled all day and proclaimed, at the end, that it was “a great day”.
This served as a reminder of the story I should be telling my children (and myself). True success is not how well you measure up or how better you are than others. True success is the love that you live. I should be telling my children, through my words and my deeds, that loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the story of success.