The Problem with Grups

You hear a lot these days about whining, narcissistic young people. You also hear a little bit about how they aren’t that bad, and we ought to just leave them alone. This kind of discussion keeps the the Huffpost/Slate/Buzzfeed hamster wheel spinning. I guess it actually generates a little bit of power, but quite frankly, I’m a little bored of it all.

But just because I’m bored doesn’t mean nothing important is happening.

Something is, in fact, happening to young people, and it isn’t just crotchety old people kvetching and waving their hands dismissively at those ear-budded thumb-typing youngsters. It’s a real thing, and it’s been gestating for years.

In the beginning it was nearly imperceptible. I saw it because I was a YMCA camp counselor, and I was working with kids of a certain age before it all went down, and then I headed off to graduate school and started teaching them in college courses, where I noticed a significant change in their behavior and attitudes. So, before people could start blaming this on No Child Left Behind for the situation, I had a sense that something was going on, and it pre-dated President Bush’s enlightened and progressive policy.  

What I’m seeing is this: young people of a certain age wait to be told.

They want a check list. They await instructions. They are pleasers. They are also extremely capable, but they wait. It’s not loitering or dallying or twiddling their thumbs. They have their eyes on the adults, and they are waiting for a little wink or thumbs up or something before they commence. Once they know what is expected, they do it. When they loose their arrows, they shoot the apple right out of the pig’s mouth.

To say this another way, these young folks don’t take the initiative and avoid risks. Can you blame them? Not with this recession. Not with video games that are designed to yank our reward chains in ways that ought to be illegal. Not with social media and its insatiable appetite for immediate and constant micro-responses. With all of this, is it any wonder these youngsters have been turned into people who find no comfort in their own autonomy.  I can not see this generation turning out a Johnny Rotten or Sarah Connor, or a Catniss Everdeen, for that matter.

Why? Because their compliance has been rewarded.

The question for many embroiled in those aforementioned arguments about millennials is who ruined these kids? But for me it’s actually not a matter of who but what. I’ve got an angle on this I haven’t seen much discussion about. I think the problem is not their Gen X parents or their Boomer grandparents. I think it’s not the “everyone gets a trophy” culture that surrounds us. I think it’s sports programs (and, of course, the adults who organize them). 

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there was a little tiny park next to a gourmet grocery store. It was called Portland Heights Park, but we all just called it Strohecker’s Park, after the store. For a lot of my youth, the kids my age would cobble together all kinds of pickup sports games. We had little league, AYSO, and Pop Warner and stuff like that, but by and large we played a lot of sports on our own.

They weren’t real sports, they were more like punk rock versions of sports. In fact, many of us scorned the legit avenues of sporting prowess I just mentioned. We were little Portland hipsters in the making. We wanted sports on our terms. Actually, I don’t think it was all that organized and conscious. I think we just went out and did stuff without asking for permission.

Instead of organized football we played mud ball. We'd wait for the park to become a soup, and then commence with something a little like rubgy, a little like football, and a lot like capture the flag. The point was to get muddy, to knock people down into the mud, to slip and slide in the mud, to have your shirt torn from your body. Snaps, passes, receptions, downs, and scoring were all beside the point. Remarkably, over the years no one was ever hurt in these ridiculous contests. Not the way they are in high school these days.

We also had this really strange version of softball that didn’t have innings. You would bat, run your bases, and when you got home you went to right field and then worked yourself down from right to center to left, third base, short stop, second base, first, pitcher, cather, then over to batter, and then back around. Before too long, you'd just lose track of the teams. It was tremendously zen, all that mattered was the play of the moment. 

The big thing was the fact that there were no parents involved. We were on our own to organize and to problem solve and to sort out the rules and to make sure the play moved forward. When there were disagreements — and there were often disagreements — someone had to take the lead to resolve it. There were no insane fathers there to shout insults at the opposing team through orange cones or to get ejected from the game for punching the ref in the stomach. There were no leagues or trophies, no tryouts, just the game. 

I don’t see this kind of thing going on any more, and I’ve been looking. In most of the places I’ve lived over the last twenty years or so, the only people who play sports on their own, without some kind of league to organize them, are international university students playing soccer in some unoccupied field. I shouldn’t say only. From time-to-time I see some folks playing frisbee golf on campus. Sometimes a couple of guys playing lacross catch. Everything else you’ve got to sign up for. Everything else needs the approval and monitoring of an adult. 

And isn’t that a little bit weird?

I think this turns kids into people who wait for things to be organized for them. More often than not, this keeps them from actually becoming organizers, from taking initiative. This has bled out into the arts as well, particularly music. Music needs the coordination of an adult, which makes sense to me, a little, but it concerns me because what do you do when you are a musician who grows up? What do you do with your clarinet skills once there is no program in place for you to play the clarinet in? Yes, there are community orchestras.


What do you do when you are an athlete who grows out of the programs for children. You love to play, but you don’t have a league anymore? You become an adult who organizes activities for children. What about dancers? I could go on an on about this. And it's a sticky situation because my wife is an arts educator, so is my pal Michael Bahr, who is the education director for a Shakespeare festival.

The problem with groups is that they have this need for the things kids do to look awesome. It’s a kind of showing off. When we played ball in Strohecker’s we weren’t doing it for the approval of parents. It wasn’t something they could brag about. It was our own thing, same as garage bands and comics you drew in a sketch book that you hid inside a trapper keeper.

It’s true that the quality of what kids can do in these arranged activities is a lot more fancy and high profile than what kids can do on their own, but in a way it doesn’t belong to the kids anymore. It belongs to the organizers. So, the problem with adults is they’ve stolen kid stuff from kids.

In the end, what the grups have done is suggest that their ideas about how to do sports, music, art, whatever is going to be better than a kid’s ideas about how to do those things.  

As I’ve said, it might be true that the quality of the product, the game, recital, concert, play, test score might go up, but it’s at a cost, always at a cost. In this case, I think the cost is that young people these days wait for adult approval before they have a go. They hold back most of their juice from endeavors that aren’t a sure thing, and sure things have grown ups finger prints on them. When they go out to work, these kids wait for their grup bosses to guide them, and the grup bosses aren't going to.

I’d love to see us empower kids to be ready to act like these kids in this old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie? Kids who know what they’re gonna do, by golly.

What did you do on your own, as a kid, with no grups? Share in the comments.