Little League, The Nutcracker, and the Loss of Childhood

By Paul Koch

Last Tuesday, I took my usual seat at the bar in the cantina where my brothers and I gather every week for the delights of Taco Tuesday. Aside from the tall cocktails and the $1 tacos, there are plenty of TVs surrounding the place so that no matter where you look you can find a convenient screen. Now, we have watched many baseballs games on those screens, lots of SportsCenter, the terrible game of soccer, and most recently the Olympic Games. But on this last Taco Tuesday, we watched Iowa defeat Rhode Island in the Little League World Series.

We munched on tacos, talked about life, and made fun of each other as we often do. All the while, children between eleven and thirteen years old played the game of baseball on national TV. Now, I’ll admit that for most of my life I’ve been one of those guys that didn’t “get” baseball. It was slow, boring, and not worth my time. However, over the last five years, I’ve really grown to appreciate and enjoy the game, rekindling my childhood love of the Dodgers and an uncontrollable urge to listen to Vin Scully on the radio. But somehow watching kids play on TV with professional broadcasting support and instant replay options made me uncomfortable.

Sure, it was baseball. In fact, it was pretty good baseball showcasing some insanely talented kids, so why did it seem so unsettling? The answer struck me as I went for a walk with my bride. We talked about the kids and what the schedule looked like for the coming year. Outside of the normal schoolwork, what would their schedule consist of? Piano lessons? Gymnastics? Swimming? Ballet? Theater? Writing courses? What did I need to be aware of, and how were they getting to and from any activities they were involved in? To my surprise (and relief), I was reminded that we aren’t going to be doing ballet this year. This is sort of an end-of-an-era kind of thing. My wife was a dancer, and all of our daughters participated in ballet, at least when they were young. She wanted them to have that foundation of body control and rhythm, but eventually it was time to let them choose what they wanted to do. One by one, the kids moved away from ballet.

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Our discussion turned to the purpose and reasoning behind the insane ballet schedule for the upcoming year that helped ease the decision to move our kids away from it. And it had to do with future prospects and making a name for the academy, along with the yearly Nutcracker performance. Now, my feelings about the Nutcracker aside, it was the mention of this that made a connection for me with the Little League World Series. And it took me back to a book I read several years ago called The Disappearance of Childhood by the cultural critic Neil Postman.

Postman makes the convincing argument that “childhood” is a modern construct that begins around seven, when the spoken language is usually mastered, and continues to sixteen or seventeen, when the written language is mastered. Childhood, he argues, became a thing with the invention of moveable type as adults began to write down the secrets of the adult world. Sex, scandal, deception, and murder were accessed through reading about it in the paper. Only those who could read could access the information. Childhood then became something we honored and tried to protect as a society.

So what does any of this have to do with the Little League World Series and the Nutcracker? Well, as Postman argues, the phenomena of childhood has been slowly eroding with the rise of TV (he wrote this in 1982), and now web access and online content only furthers it along. All the secrets of the adult world come flooding into our living rooms and through our smart phones without any requirement or understanding needed to access them. A five-year-old sitting in the front of a TV gets the same info about the world as a forty-year-old. No specialized learning is needed. The innocence of childhood is then lost.

Postman offers a long list of proofs to childhood’s disappearance, like a rise of crime perpetrated by and against children and an increase in sexual activity and drug abuse in children. He noted the growing phenomena of children and adults sharing the same musical tastes, language, literature, and movies (think of the rise of the comic book movies today). He also spoke of a lack of differentiated clothing styles and childhood games being replaced by organized sports.

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The Nutcracker and the Little League World Series are children playing adult games by adult rules. The children aren’t pushing for these performances. Instead, it’s the adults. The children become our form of entertainment. Sure, they end up enjoying it, at least most of the time. But it’s not a natural part of childhood’s innocence. We dress our kids up and put them on stage to perform by rules and standards of our own choosing, and we think it is cute.

Postman, unfortunately, doesn’t give any real solution to the problem. In fact, he seems quite certain that there is no turning back for us. The only hope to resist the erosion lies in the individual parents. He ends up saying, “Resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture.”

Parenting as a rebellion shouldn’t come as a shock to us. At the core, the Christian family is an act of rebellion. The fact that the Gospel is spoken and absolution is given in a home is in itself rebellion—against the gods of autonomy and consumerism and against the law that demands we operate out of fear and shame to keep up with the norms of our culture. Rebellion flows from freedom. True freedom is given by Christ alone.

Childhood may very well be a modern phenomenon, but I think it is worth preserving. As the forgiven and justified children of God, you are just the rebels to do it.

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One thought on “Little League, The Nutcracker, and the Loss of Childhood

  1. Sorry, Paul. I have to disagree with your statement of the LLWS and the Nutcracker as kids playing in adult games by adult rules. For some who are living out their lives through their children’s activities, you may be right. But I watched my daughter blossom as a child of 4 into a young woman of 26 through her experience in dance. She has danced her whole life with great joy, was a dance assistant to help pay for her dance classes, graduated with a degree in dance and teaching from UGA, and now works for Houston Ballet. She has been blessed to use the natural gifts and joy that God has given her to fulfill her vocation.

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