Even when kids do play today, there is a supporting cast of adults that boggles my mind. Kids are driven everywhere, fitted out with pro-style uniforms, and provided with the best sporting equipment money can buy. Then there are the manicured ball fields, gleaming gymnasiums, indoor pools and ice hockey rinks, all featuring neat bleacher seats, clean rest rooms and fully stocked refreshment stands. Play is supervised by coaches, assistant coaches, equipment managers, paid referees and umpires, and of course doting parents hollering rude things at the opposing teams and game officials. You wonder if left to their own devices whether these kids could ever get a game off the ground.
In 1950s Brooklyn we had the bare essentials. For baseball we used taped up balls, dinged bats and cardboard boxes for bases. The "field" we played on was a vacant lot that had to be cleared of stones, broken bottles and assorted debris so we could round the base paths without risking a trip to the hospital. For basketball we played in a public park. The baskets were metal rims with no nets. You got into a game by challenging whoever had the court. If you beat them, you played on. If you lost, you waited your turn to challenge again. Uniforms were inelegant; shirts vs. skins (kids who played bare chested). There were no umpires or referees, but there were unwritten street and playground codes that kids respected and abided by.
Sides were chosen simply. Two captains, usually the most dominant players or kids who emerged as natural leaders, picked their teams. A coin flip or bat toss determined who chose first. Unlike today's politically correct rules, developed by well-meaning but wrong-headed adults, every captain back then wanted the best players on his team since the object of the game was winning. Not every kid always got to play the way they do in Little League games today where the object is building self-esteem and having fun. In today's system even the worst kids get into the game, even though they clearly have no interest. Mom and Dad want them to play so they fumble their way around while the other kids groan and tease them unmercifully every time they strike out or make an error. There is no incentive to get better because their playing time is guaranteed. They never learn to compete on a level playing field, and Mommy and Daddy tend to run interference for them their entire lives.
Any disputes that arose in our street games were resolved on the spot by agreed-to means devised by the kids themselves. If some outside factor disrupted the normal flow of the game, someone called "hindu" which was the term all kids understood to mean a do-over. To get around the lack of baseball umpires, there were no balls and strikes...batters got two swings to put the ball in play. If they hit two foul balls, they were out, period. In basketball, if someone felt they were fouled, they called it themselves on the honor system. Only egregious fouls were ever called; incidental contact was part of the game and we all were OK with that. Any disagreements were handled by saying" "I'll choose you for it". Once, twice three, SHOOT! You called odds or evens in advance and the winner got the disputed decision.
I've said before that I think the lessons and values kids learn in the streets are as valuable as those in the classroom. Modern-day adults feel the need to schedule and manage every moment of their child's life, maybe because they were bullied as children and don't want to see their kids go through that. The funny thing is they are actually hurting their child's chances for acceptance by peer groups. Kids are very perceptive, and will immediately label any kid who is being overprotected by parents as a "momma's boy". Better if the kid can find his own way of being accepted by the group. Even if he can't hit a baseball or make tackles in football, there are other skills that kids value. Let the kid find out what those skills are and develop them to earn the respect of the group. Don't underestimate your child; coping with challenges and overcoming adversity really do build character.
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