Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Remember when kids used to have their summers free?

I will try my best not to turn this into a "hey, things were a lot better when I was younger" post. Because I'm not someone who generally thinks that way.

But I will say this about the experience of being a kid now vs. the days when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s:

Back when I was a lad, summer vacation meant...well, it meant "summer vacation." It meant you had half of June and all of July and August to yourself. To do with as you pleased.

Apart from family vacations and the occasional little league baseball game (which occurred, what, twice a week maybe?), you were on your own.

And it was glorious.

Of course, being a kid, you absolutely took for granted the whole concept of waking up on a warm summer morning and having nothing but a blank slate of a day ahead of you.

Only when the first day of school rolled around did you really appreciate what you had just lost.

And that first day of school, by the way, was always after Labor Day. Always. Now, I'm fairly certain my kids start a new school year about 20 minutes after the previous one ends.

Anyway, we had gigantic chunks of unstructured time in the summer months, and we used them to engage in what was, for me, a lot of fun stuff.

We played sports and games outside. We played our Atari 2600 systems inside.

We rode our bikes. We went to the city pool.

We set up failed lemonade stands. We set off firecrackers that one of us had somehow (illegally) gotten our hands on.

We watched TV. We played some more Atari.

You probably have a similar list from your own childhood.

The point is, we did a lot of things without interference from (or really the need for) adults. And both the kids and the grown-ups were just fine with this system.

Then two things happened that started the whole thing spinning out of control.

One was the specialization of sports. And by that I mean the drive to make kids better at their chosen sport through an influx of summer camps, clinics, practices, conditioning sessions, etc.

Doesn't matter what your sport is: baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse. Whatever. If you're a kid and you play it, there are programs designed solely to expose you to that sport year-round.

With that also came the creeping influence of club sports, travel programs, Junior Olympic teams, and so forth. And those have become all-consuming for families across the nation.

Not that I think there's anything intrinsically wrong with these things, mind you. If you choose to participate in them, and if it makes your child happy, by all means, go for it.

But the unintended side effect of these leagues and programs is that kids who just play sports for fun, who will never receive college athletic scholarships, suddenly find themselves pressured to join. You either participate in the travel program in the summer or else you don't play when the actual sports season rolls around in fall or spring.

Well, that's OK, you might say. Kids like that can just join a no-pressure rec league.

Which would be fine, except cities and leagues everywhere have taken their limited resources and directed them toward the travel and premier-level programs, leaving rec programs to rot on the vine with inferior equipment and few trained coaches.

That is, if the rec-level sport still exists at all. Many have just disappeared altogether.

The result is an all-or-nothing, travel-league-or-bust approach that alienates the average kid. So, rather than be left out, youngsters will often submit to the pressure of travel sports, and suddenly their calendars (summer and otherwise) fill up with practices, games and skill sessions that leave little time for any real relaxation.

The other thing that precipitated this trend is that overworked parents have started implementing structure in the lives of kids who didn't necessary need more of it.

Parents have always felt some degree of guilt over the amount of time they spend (or don't spend) with their children. But nowadays, with magazine articles, TV psychiatrists and authors constantly reminding them just how slack they are in the parenting department, moms and dads try to compensate by exposing Junior to a wealth of new experiences through lessons, classes, and seminars of every kind.

Every. Kind.

Many kids today need an admin assistant just to keep track of their schedules. I had two things on my summer schedule when I was growing up:

8 a.m. - Get out of bed. Go find friends and commence day's activities.

9 p.m. - Come in when I was called and go to bed. Repeat cycle the next day.

And I guess I turned out OK. For what that's worth.

You don't hear many kids complaining about this turn of events, and I'm guessing that's because they don't know any different. They've never had unstructured summers, so they don't know what they're missing.

I'll tell you what they're missing.

A lot.

But maybe that's just the product of the undisciplined mind of a guy who spent his childhood summers playing in his friend's backyards. What do I know?

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