Why are there organized sports for 4-year-old kids?

Picture the scene, if you dare: It’s a warm and humid central Texas evening, and a throng of adults are sitting on uncomfortable wooden benches surrounding a tiny baseball field. Strewn about the field are around fifteen four-year-old children. Several are playing second base. Several others are picking flowers, picking their noses, or otherwise engaged in some non-sporting activity. Standing near the plate, wearing a helmet that occasionally falls down and covers his eyes, there’s a little boy hacking away at a baseball on a tee. He doesn’t yet possess the dexterity to tie his own shoes, but his parents have decided to publicly declare him coordinated enough to play teeball. Clearly, they’ve misjudged his capabilities, though, as he can’t seem to make contact with the ball, despite the fact that it’s not moving.

These children are not going to grow up to be professional baseball players. In fact, they almost certainly won’t remember anything about their teeball league once they turn 15 or 16 years old. I surely don’t remember anything from when I was four years old, and if you’re honest with yourself, gentle reader, I doubt you do, either. So why do parents do this to their children? And why do they do this to themselves?

Today, as I had lunch with my coworkers (who are the single coolest group of people on Earth, by the way), I overheard a woman who’s perfectly rational in every other aspect of her life confess that her two small children have athletic activities six nights a week. I nearly fainted. Moments later, another certifiably sane coworker confessed that she had signed up her four-year-old son for soccer, but she’s not sure he’s ready to play because the first time they went out to the yard to practice, his kicks didn’t go where he wanted them to, and he flopped down to the grass weeping. I suspect that countless such stories of suffering (on the part of both children and parents) could be overheard at lunch tables and break rooms everywhere. It stuns me.

I grant that I may misunderstand this situation, since I’m not a parent myself, but I really just can’t make any sense out of it. Why in the world would a parent want to spend multiple nights each week to shuttle a child to practices and games for a sport he or she isn’t even old enough to play yet? If four-year-olds were meant to play baseball, they’d be able to hit the damn thing when it was thrown to them.

I suspect the “toddler sports” phenomenon has something to do with America’s obsession with remaining constantly busy. It seems we’re not allowed to just sit still. We feel obligated to schedule things for every hour of our days. What can the kids and I squeeze in between 5 p.m., when I get off work, and 9 p.m., when they need to go to bed? On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we can take little Ricky to soccer practice. On Mondays and Wednesdays, we can take Sally to dance practice. On Friday, though, Mom and Dad will each need to take a separate car because the soccer game and the recital are both scheduled to happen at 7. What kind of insanity is this? Kids (and adults, for that matter) need time to decompress, to relax. There’s no need to go-go-go during every waking moment.

The compulsion to put kids in organized sports programs from the time they’re old enough to wear their first pair of big-boy-undies unsettles me for another reason, too. I don’t believe kids that age need to be in competitive sports. Four-year-olds don’t need an adult coach instructing them on the finer points of playing shortstop; they need to be playing together without adult direction, inventing games, learning to socialize and interact appropriately. There’s a reason that kindergarten is dedicated almost entirely to learning social skills and how to play nice with others. Sure, we could try to teach them long division, but they have neither the need nor the capability for such a skill. I think the analogy is obvious.

Here’s something else that drives me nuts about this entire situation: Remember the aforementioned mom whose two children have sports six nights a week? She also told me that the first meeting for soccer (Soccer? Honest to God? Who plays soccer?) was rather interesting because the organizers distributed two sheets of rules to the parents. These rules do not govern the kids, though. The sports parents themselves apparently require two entire pages of rules to avoid making jackasses out of themselves in public. She listed rules like “The children are here to have fun. Please let them do so.” and “Do not argue with the referees. It undermines their authority in front of children and the other parents.” In other words, don’t be a jackass. I don’t even know what to say about this, except to tell you that I’m shaking my head as I type.

News flash! As I was sitting here typing that last paragraph, another of my coworkers came in to ask a work-related question. After that discussion, I referred her to my topic for this entry. She informed me that a boy who plays on the same soccer team as her eight-year-old son has started tackle football this year. She and her husband bumped into the boy’s parents at the local sporting goods store, where they were no doubt investing hundreds of dollars in tiny football gear. Somebody needs to tell Dad that he didn’t make it to the NFL, coach didn’t put him in the game during the fourth quarter of 1987 bi-district championship game against the Bilgewater, Texas Fighting Flounders, and his career in accounting is pretty much locked in for life.

Wow. Now I just sound angry. Does that hurt my ethos? It probably does…but I’m prepared to take that chance because this is ridiculous!

My advice: Go out in the back yard and play catch with your kid. If your kid isn’t old enough to catch a ball, play tag.


1 Response to “Why are there organized sports for 4-year-old kids?”

  1. 1 The Storm
    September 17, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    So, I think this is hysterical and also funny. However, MY five year old doesn’t use a tee and he can catch a ball. Does that make me less crazy? I’m gonna go with no.

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