April 9, 2001

Let’s talk about play, which — by definition — is more fun than talking about politics. Though with George Bush as president, it’s hard to distinguish play from policy. I mean, his playing with China is goofy, or maybe just stupid.

Across the street from my grade school in Brooklyn was a playground. Like most playgrounds in Brooklyn, it was all concrete. Back then we thought that all playgrounds were concrete, and therefore lots of fun. To us, falling on soft earth would have taken some of the fun out of falling.

This playground featured a wading pool area that was surrounded by an iron fence. During the school year the pool was kept empty, so every lunchtime found most of the kids from PS 198 playing dodge ball in there. Man, that was fun. What was really neat about it was that any number could play. There were only a couple of handball and basketball courts, so not everybody could play on them — but everybody could play dodge ball.

Do you know why we played dodge ball? Because it was fun.

I know many screwed-up adults, including me; we all blame our diverse problems on equally diverse reasons, from our present reality to our childhood. Yet I have never known anyone to blame the quality of their lives on having played dodge ball during childhood.

But apparently, I have yet to hear the bad news. America seems intent on taking the play out of childhood.

Check it out: This is from a feature on dodge ball from last Saturday’s Times Herald Record:

It’s a dangerous game. Violent. Hurtful, even. It’s dodge ball, and a national group of gym teachers says it’s got to go.

(With the first part of that sentence, I thought they were referring to marriage.)

But anyway, the article continues with this quote:

We take the position that dodge ball is not an appropriate instructional activity because it eliminates children and does not respect the needs of less-skilled children.

All I can begin to say is thank God that when I was a kid, we didn’t know that dodge ball was an instructional activity. If we had, I doubt we ever would have played it. We considered instructional activities really dangerous.

So now it’s an unhealthy game because it “eliminates kids.” Geeze, and I was worried about kids with semi-automatic weapons, because I thought that they were the ones who were eliminating kids. Apparently elimination games are bad, really bad. They must be bad because the same overly serious, neurotic adults who want to eliminate dodge ball also consider musical chairs physically dangerous and emotionally scarring because it is…well, physical and, by God, kids get eliminated. Hopscotch must be in serious trouble too. With this logic, baseball, football, soccer and basketball can’t be far behind. They are physical and you play for hours and then a whole group of kids loses completely, destroying their minds forever.

Between the over-protectiveness of parents and the stupidity of our public educators, it won’t be long before the only games that kids are allowed to play will be things like non-competitive sewing circles and quilting bees.

I know parents who sew beepers and cell phones onto their kids just to ensure that they know where their children are every second of every moment. Think of those leg bracelets they put on people on probation. It’s an easy analogy: kids are becoming more and more like prisoners to the shackles of adult neurosis and political correctness.

For God sakes! For a brief moment in each human being’s life, we get to be free. We get to just play. It’s called childhood. The greatest thing about being a child is being completely, totally, irredeemably out of control.

Growing up in the city was cool, mostly because we never had to rely on adults for anything other than food and shelter. The rest was unsupervised play. Personally, I think “supervised play” is an oxymoron.

On my block, every kid, all the time, had scraped knees and elbows. That was kind of a baseline indicator of how much fun we had. On any given day, somebody had a cast or some stitches, more indicators of serious fun. By the time I was twelve, I had signed more casts than report cards. Thank God.

Our level of competition was way up there. We competed for things like who had the most hairline fractures along with that broken arm or who had the most stitches. I once set the block record with thirteen stitches in my chest. That was so cool. As soon as I could, I took the bandage off, unbuttoned my shirt and walked around showing off my stitches. Then when my mother called me in for dinner, I’d slap the bandage back on and go home. We figured what our parents didn’t know couldn’t hurt them — or, more importantly, couldn’t hurt us.

I have relatives who live in a lovely neighborhood, very quiet and safe. No doubt, there are other children on their block. They have an eight-year-old child who has never, in her whole life, played in an unsupervised manner with other children. Her parents are afraid that she will be immediately kidnapped, raped and murdered. Yeah, well…I’m afraid the kid will grow up without ever having known the sheer joy of being a child.

Ironically, this could be the kind of kid who grows up to bring an uzi to school.

Grade-school children are being suspended for bringing water pistols to school, and God forbid a kid should make an ethnic joke.

Check it out: play serves a purpose. Watch animals play and even little kittens and puppies play rough. Play is our preparation for life. Life is competitive, and it does involve loss and pain. Play is God’s way of giving us ways to incrementally practice and prepare for life. Do you really want your children to grow up and then hit real adulthood without the skills or the self-awareness that can only be learned through play?

I can’t get over this new notion that games that involve elimination are somehow unhealthy. Heck, when you get right down to it (and inevitably you have to get right down to it), life is an elimination game. At some point I’m going to be eliminated, while everybody else gets to keep playing. It’s called death. I don’t know about you, but dodge ball prepared me for this hard reality.

Several years ago, a study showed that younger employees were significantly shyer than kids of their same age had been twenty years earlier. So businesses had to train new employees not be fear interacting with other people. These kids clearly never played dodge ball, or even musical chairs. Musical chairs is cool because it was just about the only coed game we played as kids, and definitely the only game where a girl might accidentally plop down on your lap. As a lad, learning how to respond when a girl accidentally sat on my lap was a great lesson in self-awareness and, more importantly, self-control. This came in handy as an adult.

I have been a consultant to business and government for twenty years now. Do you know what characteristics are at the top of the list when businesses look for employees? Not proven competence in that industry, nor test scores. They want innovators, critical thinkers, risk takers and creative souls. In today’s reality, those qualities are prized above all others. And what are they getting instead? People who spent their childhood on leashes. I think the first question any young person should be asked at a job interview is, “Did you play dodge ball?” The second question should be, “Can you describe the various strategies you used as a child to get out from under your parents’ thumbs?” If the youngster says no to the dodge ball question and no to the parent-thumb-strategy question, the little sucker shouldn’t be hired; he or she will never add value to your business.

Parents, you’ve got to let go of them, at least a little. For God sakes, let your kids have their childhoods! Let me give you an excerpt from a father’s letter to his daughter:

Dear Dawn,

So, I do think it is about trust and about paying attention. You need to trust your knowledge, wisdom (question everything), experience and love. As parents, we need to trust your experience, process, integrity and your need to be the author of your own life.

More than anything, remember to stay curious!

I remind myself that I don’t and can’t truly know your world. I don’t fully understand how this world appears to a young person. We grew up in different times and places. Just as me and my parents did. My folks didn’t know the world as I knew it. We saw the same stuff, but how we saw it was different. Who saw the truth? Well, we still differ on that.

I worry some, but not too much, I think. You love yourself and you’ll make the right choices. I’m a parent, and as such I want to protect you from some of life’s suffering and pains, the injuries and work of life. You want your path to be your path, thorns and thickets and all.

I suppose getting scratched won’t kill you and we all do have to learn that we bleed, that pain hurts, and that risks are in fact dangerous.

I think that you take after me, so I know what I’m talking about.

Mostly the whole thing is about paying attention. I get in trouble when I don’t do that, but you know that. Do I have your attention? Good! Here we go:

“Paying attention,” that is what the truth costs. In order to get at the truth, we have to pay attention. That’s the price of the ticket, attention. That is what we pay for the truth trip. Indeed, there are other trips that cost less. Lots of people take those because they are simply unwilling to pay attention. They think it is too expensive! They don’t want to pay that much attention.

There is another ride at this carnival that looks like the one I’m describing, but you have to pay attention to its real name. It’s called the “Only pay attention to the stuff we like and want to see” ride. It runs on a track called “easy,” but it takes its passengers to a place called “very hard.” That’s why I recommend the trip for which you have to pay attention. That’s the ticket price! By contrast, it runs on a track called “faith,” through scenery called “truth,” to a place called “good.” Ain’t no passengers on this line, nope! On this here train, everybody’s gotta stoke their own coal, keep paying attention, get dirty and sweaty. And that’s okay. The ride is worth it; take it from me, your dad. There ain’t no free ride, and since you’ve got to pay something, you might as well pay attention.

Look at it this way. If you don’t pay attention, you may still get to wherever you are going, but you’ll never know how you got there!



I wrote that to my kid in 1987.

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