We need to stop living vicariously through children.
I'm speaking in generalizations, here, but whether you're talking about soccer moms and little league fathers or mothers who use their daughters as pawns in the disgusting youth beauty pageant circle, overbearing parents and their own parental insecurities, along with a hungry universe looking for a good story, are ruining children.
I have covered sports on the high school, college, and pro levels. I've been on the field, and in the locker rooms. Though the skill level and quality of play increases with each upward step, I always enjoyed watching high school games the most. What the players lacked in talent, they made up for with zeal. Sadly, seeing the demeanor of the college and pro athletes, I know this enthusiasm is not long for the kids' worlds because of the on-lookers in the bleachers, waiting to make fun a chore. And it's starting at younger and younger ages.
People have been wondering about the whereabouts of Freddy Adu lately. At 12 years old, Adu was to be the next Pele. Now 18, he's proven to be just another slightly-above-average MLS player. Michelle Wie was 11 when people began noticing her, 12 in her first LPGA tournament. Now, a couple of months short of being a legal adult, Wie hasn't delivered on the hype. She's been very average, in fact, missing the cut in four of her last seven tournaments, and has shown signs of discontent, breaking down at a tournament earlier this year.
To a lot of people, the fact that these kids haven't developed is their fault. But I think the problem lies with perception, not reality. The fact that these people can keep up with the top level of competition at their age is remarkable in and of itself. But that's not good enough. They need to dominate. Expectations aren't easy to meet when they're set so high. The fact of the matter is: Freddy Adu was not better than Ronaldinho when he was 12. Michelle Wie couldn't keep up with Sorenstam at 11. They were very good at those ages, sure, but not the best. And they were judged on some arbitrary scale, where x ability + y age = z potential. Anything < z is a failing mark. And there are too many variables involved with kids that young to rely on concrete formulas.
For one, neither Adu or Wie had even completed puberty. What if their bodies didn't develop as an athlete's typically does? What if the two matured and decided to pursue other interests or directions in life? What if they had just hit their plateau at a young age? Overzealous sports writers, and others of their ilk, view these talented kids as machines working for the benefit of a lot of people -- their parents, endorsers, a good story -- ignoring the fact that they're people who are going through an incredibly difficult period of their life mentally, who must still be treated with kid gloves because they are, in fact, still kids. A wrong step during someone's formative years, particularly through puberty, can disrupt someone's mental stability forever. People forget this. I'm 23 and feel uncomfortable having a conversation in a public elevator. Do you think it's easy for a teenager or pre-teen to handle the expectations and scrutiny of blinking lights and rolling tape recorders?
But it doesn't just happen with the elite -- parents in every town and city in America are so consumed with their child being the best at everything (actual human limitations be damned) that they rob their children of their childhood. How many little leaguers actually get a close whiff of the majors? At best, a miniscule percentage of these overworked kids make it to the mountaintop, only to realize that they weren't allowed to fully form during their formative years. At worst, the giant population of kids whose sporting careers eventually fade face the same realization without the comfort of a million-dollar pro contract and the satisfaction of accomplishment to ease the pain.
These are the parents that sit in the stands with an eye so scrutinous that their child constantly looks over his or her shoulder, fearing any glance that's not approving. The same parents who turn car rides home into a third-rate coaching session, nitpicking about a little league game, treating the competition as a crucial rehearsal for a career that will set them (the parent) up for an easy life, instead of letting it serve its true purpose -- teaching comraderie, teamwork, adversity through defeat, and the rewards of hard work, as well as providing a child an outlet where he or she can have fun WITHOUT fearing the consquences of a potential failure.
Look, I'm all for having dreams and setting out to obtain them. And I understand that to reach the pinnacle of anything, you need to be hard-working and dedicated to your craft. But even the most ardent aspirees of a pro career, at that age, have a tipping point where oversaturation kicks in. Remember, these kids should play the sport because they like to play it. When it stops becoming fun and starts becoming homework as arduous as the crap they bring from school, there's a problem. And those who are more concerned with being an astronaut, or a fireman, or whatever other things kids dream about being these days? Why force something that obviously doesn't fit? Because it's not about what the child wants. Parents need to feel validated as good parents, and they need their children to atone for their own perceived mediocre life results. To a frightening amount of our parents, instilling qualities such as indepenent thought, open-mindedness, kindness, loyalty, and honesty is less a sign of good parenting as how much money the child eventually makes and how glamorous a job makes them that money.
So it's no wonder Michelle Wie had that breakdown. The scrutiny didn't begin when she was 11. It began when she started playing golf at four. Do you think she made a conscious decision to play golf at four years old? Do you think, in the seven years between her first swing and her first big success, she lived anything remotely near a normal childhood? I'm sure she looks at how she is discussed in the media -- as a failure, as a letdown -- and the 14 years of training that preceded today, and wonders if it was all worth it. I'm sure an increasing amount of young Americans are asking themselves the same question.
Why are we placing a premium on raising prodigies instead of good people?