I once lived in a part of New Jersey called North Bergen. It was quite European by design in most parts and was obviously an escape for all who had a phobia for the clutter of New York City. Most people, including me, worked in the City and the morning and evening commute was a social phenomenon to be observed. I liked it though. I was constantly drawn to the evening and weekends of the North Bergen life, which I have come to appreciate as a microcosm of big City conurbations.
Some evenings and weekends, I go jogging or biking in the park and derive my motivation from the older populations who display such pleasure at keeping fit than a fledgling male such as this writer. After combusting the calories I will usually sit on one of the park benches, earphones in place to pump some good low notes, and begin my careful observation on one of the highways of human activity. In doing this, I was particularly drawn to kids who were at the park training at one sport or the other, in particular Baseball and Soccer. Standing and sitting at the sidelines were several parents watching carefully over their wards.
During my many evening trips home from work, I had passively noticed that the parks were always bubbling with people exercising and parents who had brought their kids for after school training in their chosen sport. These are the baseball moms and soccer moms that wield so much influence in typical American sociocultural and political life. I recalled this from my park observatory and moved my attention to the several parents who were screaming and cheering from the sidelines and I thought how beautiful it was to see parents who are so involved in the lives of their children, something we scarcely see in this part of the world.
But staying on the thought through deeper reflection, I began experiencing a feeling of unease, especially because I noted how some of the kids were reacting to ‘parental love’. I couldn’t help but be concerned about the pressure these parents were putting on the little ones to do better or be sanctioned. Mind you these were kids ranging from 4 to about 9 year olds. I just wondered when kiddies sport became so serious and competitive. You could literally see how determined they were to ‘succeed’ at what they did and to please the watching mama, that anything else amounted to ‘failure’ in life. I quickly reminisced about the Irish Priest at my high school in Calabar, who came to soccer practice with a bulala. He had no reservations on whipping you when you made any mistake on the pitch of play. So playing well was a function of avoiding the Priest’s whip.
But for these kiddies in the park, it is all about playing out the rule book of mom. But of course! I hear that scouts frequent these local sports arena to find potential stars to sign for highly competitive private clubs. One of the interesting aspects of the contracts ‘star kids’ sign to go professional is that they will only limit themselves to the particular sport they are signed on to give the most commitment to improvement. Does that sound like the life of a kid anymore? World over, many sporting bodies are starting to hunt for the next stars from toddlers and sponsoring events with max age set to five. At that age, they barely can hold a Tennis Racket. And by the way, this is not just confined to sports. Parents are even shoving musical instruments down the throats of their babies just to produce the next Gadi Lehavi.
Whatever the arguments for or against this trend in Western societies, my concern is real. The world has given a very warped meaning to success and what it means to be successful and we are introducing this to our children as early as possible to give them a ‘head-start’. We drag them into the rat race that they basically have to earn an income before the can say taa taa. Once the lip is separated from the nipple, we feel they owe us big time for giving them the privilege of visiting earth, seeing how high the cost of living is. So we introduce them to the pursuit of individualism and competition and we later wonder why society is full of greedy idiots who cannot see beyond the toys of life.
Yes it feels really good to stand in the midst of a crowd applauding your child for the talent displayed, especially when it is also paying the bills. Being Mama Phelps, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, or Mama Bieber is better experienced than imagined. But believe me, society is full of walking corpses who have lived someone else’s life and can no longer find theirs. Parents are trying to live out their desires and expectations through their children without minding the need that the kids be kids and for them to grow up through an organic process of child development. Yes children need to be guided, but not to constrain them from the liberty of their choices by which they discover their personal artistry and with which they exchange proper and lasting value with society.
This is the crisis we also face in our education system here in Nigeria. Consistently poor outcomes on a national scale should tell us that aside from the constant complaints of government not investing enough in education, many children are gradually losing interest in the way we seek to educate them. We have told them clearly if you want to be successful, be good at school, else you will end up a street urchin. So we register them in after school classes, send them to holiday lessons, and make them take qualifying exams for levels above them. The result is that many kids are clearly frustrated but the cultural system of obedience has also hindered the free expressions of such frustrations. So as soon as they grow the beards and the boobs they give you the boots.
Clearly the capitalist system we have adopted has failed us in many ways, so we need to let our kids be kids and evolve a system that will better serve their generation. Sam McNerney in his article “Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don’t”, captures my thoughts best by stating and I quote: “In many ways, children flourish where adults fail. Children are more creative and are natural inventors. Their worldview is incomplete and demands discovery. They prosper because they embrace their ignorance instead of ignoring it. And they are willing to explore, investigate and put their ideas to the test because they are willing to fail. Unlike adults, they don’t care how other people perceive or evaluate their ideas, and they’re unconcerned with the impossible or what doesn’t work.” But we deliberately interrupt this process of ingenuity by emphasizing ends, means and urgency.
Our world is dying for change and we have no clue how to go about this. I have constantly reminded myself that the future we want lies in the deconstruction of the ‘effective and efficient’ systems we have created. It lies in the deliberate withering of the compulsion to determine outcomes and the stigmatization of failures. If we so care to know, the beauty of our world is probably locked in the prudish imaginations of kiddies and we need to give them time and space to work it out in their own way. I kind of like to see the role of parenting as stewarding – keep the house clean and not move the furniture around. Stewarding our kids is essential, but bossing them is unacceptable. I guess we could have Michael Jackson’s daddy give us a thorough lecture on this matter. I’m limited so I rest my case.