After-School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids

What if our sons just did after-school activities for fun and to make friends? Does that mean they'll fail in life? Gosh, I hope not.

What if our sons just did after-school activities for fun and to make friends? Does that mean they’ll fail in life? Gosh, I hope not.

My son gains possession of the ball near midfield and seems to move in slow motion as he guides it with his feet along the grass, dodging flailing teammates and charging opponents, dribbling carefully, slowly, deliberately, toward the goal. He doesn’t run. He glides through and past the other kids as if only vaguely aware they share the field. He stops, changes direction, slides through an opening, switches control of the ball from one foot to the other, again dribbles carefully, slowly, deliberately, toward the goal.

He eludes one final defender at the top of the box, shifts the ball to his stronger left foot, and kicks as hard as he can. The ball hops and rolls through legs, past feet, toward the goal mouth, bending, bending, away from the frantic goalie, rolling, hopping, bending … and sliding past the far post out of bounds for a goal kick.

I lower my iPhone, watch him trot back to cover an opponent during the ensuing kick. I lower my gaze and curse quietly. So close. So close. I cue up the brief video and hope against hope that the ball will somehow find its way into the net this time. It still goes wide, and I become resigned to his fate as defined by the Upper Middle Class ethos of win-win-win at all costs. Life is a zero-sum game. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. Win … or lose.

I turn my attention back to the soccer field, where I now know the frenetic activity to be futile. It dawns on me gradually, relentlessly, achingly, that my son will never be a Fortune 500 CEO. I swallow a sob, delete the video and slide my iPhone into a front pocket.

There will be no more video or photographic evidence of his failure – of my failure as a parent. It’s over. We lost.



I won’t get much into the socioeconomic elements and conclusions of the work and research of Harvard- and Princeton-educated sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman. I can’t even come close to matching her academic credentials, and I’m not even certain I have much of an opinion on the stated topic of her recent article on the Atlantic website – “After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse.” Nor have I read her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

I should also say this: It’s your life. I make no judgments about how you decide to teach your children about what is important. As I have said many times, I don’t have the answers. As a parent, the only universal truth I know is there is no such thing as a good night’s sleep.

That said, after reading that piece in the Atlantic, I was compelled to express a certain level of dismay. As I so delicately put it in a Facebook update when I shared the article: “This Atlantic piece makes me want to poke all the sticks into all the eyes of all the narrow-minded people who see life as a zero-sum game, and youth sports as a training ground for stepping on and crushing the hopes and dreams of others in order to get ahead.”

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The Foundation of a Sound Retirement Plan: Youth Soccer

One of these boys owes me a Cessna Citation. Or at least a flat in Hampstead.

About 14 million kids play soccer in the U.S. every year. Jay became one of them at age 4. That was too young.

I’m not saying that starting all kids in organized sports before they enter kindergarten is wrong. I’m saying it was wrong for our kid.

How do I know he was too young? Because on the morning of his debut in organized sports, after a promising pregame warmup session with his new teammates, Jay broke down during the actual game. He played for a while and even scored a goal, but after about five minutes of the “amoeba” soccer chaos that is the Beautiful Game as played by 3- and 4-year-olds, he was done. And when he was done, he was completely done. There were tears. He took a rest on the bench, but refused to go back in, no matter how much cajoling we did. I was mortified. I was more upset than I should’ve been, certainly. He was 4. He still pronounced his R’s like W’s and his C’s like T’s. He just wasn’t ready.

So much for that private jet and London retirement.

That behavior – and my frustration – carried through the first half of the season. We would get to the games on Saturday mornings, Jay would go through the warmups fine, then either break down shortly after the start of the game or refuse to play altogether. Soccer games became weekly trials of my patience. Jay wasn’t enjoying it, and I sure as hell wasn’t happy. I thought we had made a terrible mistake registering him for YMCA soccer. And what if it was the kind of mistake that had long-reaching repercussions? What if this early, miserable experience turned him against organized sports for all time? We endured the slog, and now he loves it. So, that’s a relief.

I’m not going to generalize here about the desire of every father to see his sons or daughters excel in athletics. Not every dad lives vicariously through his child’s organized sporting events. Not every dad dreams of the day his boy or girl earns a full athletic scholarship to college, then signs that first life-changing professional contract. Some dads truly just want to see their kids have fun on the field or court. They see organized sports as a way to encourage physical fitness and social interaction. I’d like to think I’m one of those dads, the kind with the healthy attitude about the role of participatory sports in a child’s development.

I’d LIKE to think I’m one of those dads. Maybe one day I will be. But I must confess: I would love for Jay or Chris to become sports stars. I want to sit in the stands, watch them score a goal or steal a base or make an interception, and I want to say to the other dads and moms, “That one’s mine.” I do want that.

I also want them to make perfect scores on the SAT, never get anything worse than an A on their report cards, learn to play the violin like Itzhak Perlman, blaze trails like Susan B. Anthony and President Obama, discover creative ways to transform the world like Steve Jobs, stand up for what’s right in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity like Nelson Mandela, and be as kind and generous as their mother.

Deep down, though, what I want is for them to be able to swing a stick or kick a ball well enough to allow them to make more money than A-Rod and Tiger Woods combined.

I know the odds are against this happening, especially since I’m not going to be the dad that forces his kids to practice, practice, practice every day, all day. As if that was even an option. It’s all I can do get them to kick the ball around in the back yard for more than three minutes (no exaggeration) before they’re ready to move on to the next thing. But you know what? That’s fine. It really is. Do I want a retirement home in London or Edinburgh, bought with my son’s hard-earned golf winnings? Sure. You bet. Am I going to get the next-generation Cessna Citation as a birthday present from my son after he signs for a jillion pounds with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club? Probably not. And I’m good with that. Hoping for something and expecting it are not the same thing.

Which brings me back to the Cessna-less present day and Jay’s youth soccer career. He loves it now. The frustration lasted through the first half of his first season, after which he settled into neutral semi-enjoyment. It ended well enough that we signed him up for the next season, the 5-6-year-old division, after making darn sure that he wanted us to. Because he was the youngest and smallest kid on a new team, it was like starting over. Same kind of breakdowns. Same frustrations. Same gradual change in mindset and reaction. By the end of that second season, he couldn’t wait for the next one. He’s two games into his fourth season and, as I say, loving it.

Chris, on the other hand, has just started his first season. If anything, his reaction has been worse than his big brother’s. No tears, just an utter refusal to participate. Even though he acted excited about it, he refused to even join in the pregame warmups. He sat on MomScribe’s lap throughout his first game, then sort of wandered around, uninterested, during his second game. Again, no amount of cajoling would convince him to run around and chase the ball with all those other kids – some of whom are actually younger than him. Again, I started to feel frustrated, and worried that we had made a mistake in registering him at such a young age. Younger than his brother was when he started, in fact.

And you know what? We did make a mistake. There’s some temptation to hold the line, to point to the experience with Jay as evidence that Chris will come around eventually. We’re not going to force this, though. If he’s not interested – which clearly, he’s not – then we’ll wait. It’s $100 down the drain, but it’s a lesson learned. Later, when he’s ready, he’ll let us know. If he’s not interested, he’ll let us know that, too. I hope he’s interested. I mean, have you SEEN the new Cessna Citation Ten? Just the thing for a hop across the pond to watch my kid play a Saturday game at Wembley, after which we can pop over to our Hampstead flat and sup with Becks and Posh and the lads.