Monday, July 25, 2011

Hard to Herd

I've been thoroughly enjoying reading Anthony Esolen's TEN WAYS TO DESTROY THE IMAGINATION OF YOUR CHILD. It's a satirical guidebook for how parents can take full advantage of all the technological and cultural progress we've made in the last forty years to ensure that their children's minds are barren wastelands when it comes to intellectual and spiritual curiosity. Here’s a wonderful section on the power of play:

Here again we see the wonders of organizing every waking non-electronic moment of a child’s life. When adults are in charge, they will settle the dispute. Sometimes they do so preventively, by making sure disputes cannot occur. That’s what schools in Massachusetts did a few years ago, decreeing that for elementary school soccer matches, no one should keep score. What a remarkable teaching device that was! It prevented the children from using their wits to separate right from wrong. It shut off the opportunity for real appreciation of an opponent’s case. It delivered the message, instead, that one’s own feelings are paramount, and anyway, what difference does the score make, as long as everyone is having fun? Buried beneath the beneficence was the knowledge that the best of fun depends upon the pretense that a run or goal actually means something; otherwise there is no real game at all.

A good argument against regular season NBA games having any meaning.

But even if score is kept, when the dispute arises, and adult steps in, splits the difference (which is usually an unjust split), and orders the kids to proceed in their maturation.

But boys from time immemorial have fashioned their own “rules” for meting out sandlot justice. The batter hits the groundball to shortstop and says he has beaten the throw to first. The shortstop says he’s out.

“I had you by a mile!” A mile, in sandlot parlance, means five or six inches, the distance of the foot as it is about to come down on the base.

“Are you kidding? My foot landed before I heard the ball in the glove! You’re blind!” This is the Counterargument with Evidence.

“You never heard the ball at all, you liar!” This is the Direct Attack on Personal Integrity.

“I’m not going to let you get away with it this time!” This is the Threat to Personal Well-Being.

“Well, go ahead and try something!” This is Calling the Bluff.

Certain figures in Washington, D.C. would do well to take note.

Usually matters don’t go so far. The boys will argue, using evidence, and they all understand that it is in everyone’s interest to respect evidence, since otherwise no game is possible. If the evidence is indecisive, the next expedient is to summon the Nearest Uninvolved Person, a spectator perhaps, or one of the players known to be honest, so long as he had a good view of the play. If that doesn’t work, you make an appeal to Worthy Opponents, those on the other side of one of the disputants, who will admit that his teammate is wrong. And if that doesn’t work, the boys will not go home in a snit. What would be the fun of that? They will not cry, like babies. They will not sue. They will use the supreme act of their moral imaginations. They will forgive the baseball universe. They will Pretend the Play Never Happened. Everyone goes back to where he was , and the play is done over—and everyone will accept the result, for better or worse. Anybody who still harbors feelings about it is labeled a Sore Loser, and is looked upon with contempt by his fellows; it is a deep character flaw. But anybody who can engineer a quick solution acceptable to all sides labeled a Good Sport, and of him great and glorious things are expected.

I’ve written before that one of the great things about unsupervised play for children, especially pickup games, is the need for all participants to establish and agree to a set of rules and boundaries for play. The smaller and less formal the group playing, the more the need for this consensus, whether it be “ghosts runners” in baseball or how many Mississippis you had to count before rushing the quarterback. You might not always like all these rules or how they were called during the game, but if you wanted to play you had to abide by them and, unlike times when you were under the parental eye, you had a say in which particular ones you employed.

But I had forgotten all about the beauty of the “do over.” Sometimes as a child, it seemed as if there was very little that you could control in your life. However, when it came to the “do over” you suddenly had the ability to turn back the clock, to wipe the slate clean, and pretend as if what had just happened really hadn’t. As Esolen explains, the genius of the “do over” was that all parties agreed to implement it and accept the results that came along with it. It was the ultimate imaginative solution to dealing with a situation with two intractable parties unwilling to reach agreement on what had actually just transpired. It’s an approach that could come in handy at times for adults as well.

Esolen then explains why letting your kids play games on their own is such a dangerous idea:

We should always remember that such a scene as I have described is the last thing we want. People who can organize themselves and accomplish something as devilishly complicated as a good ballgame are hard to herd around. They can form societies on their own. They become men and women, hot human resources. They can be free.