Look outside. Do you see kids riding their bikes? Playing baseball in the park? Setting up soccer goals in the driveway or engaging in a pick-up game of basketball?
Not really. Not often. Because this is the age of the industrial youth sports complex, where childhood games have taken the form of elite competitions, and adult men are profiting off of expensive tournaments for six and seven year old children; where parents subject their kids to tryouts for travel teams and try to convince their tots to “take it to the next level.” It’s a business bent on artificial “atta boy’s” that teach kids they are simply too good to fail while parents pay egregious sums of money to watch their small children pitch four games over a two day period with ten minutes of warm up time in between.
The good news is that my son has autism, and these kinds of exploits in the name of trophies and egos are both totally unappealing to my boy and completely out of reach.
Not that Henry isn’t a good athlete, because he is. He is quite talented. From the time he could first walk, he was scaling the doorways of our home like an arachnid, and it didn’t take us long to realize that he had an innate ability to run both fast and far. But autism makes competition less relevant and less practical. Henry plays sports on his terms because that’s what he does. He runs or shoots a ball into a hoop or kicks a goal because he likes the activity. That’s the only pay-off: His enjoyment, and the self-esteem that accompanies accomplishment. And it’s the real kind of self-worth as opposed to the manufactured confidence we spoon-feed children with the lure of being on the “A” team or playing “travel ball” or whatever other terms you apply in trying to express to a child that they are “better” than the kid next door.
Here’s what I mean….
We went on a bike ride the other night; a little family roll along the path near our home. My husband took his bicycle, and I hopped on the commuter bike so that one child could ride with me on the back while the other child pedaled their own bike. I figured the kids could trade off riding and pedaling, so that neither would tire too quickly.
It was time to head home after about an hour of swapping bikes back-and-forth, trolling alongside the creek and catching a little green frog in a pond, stopping to collect rocks and sticks and dip toes in frosty waters. As Henry pedaled over a little wooden bridge, I suggested that he trade with his sister and get on the back of the commuter bike.
About a quarter mile from that bridge is a long, steep hill that leads to our house in Old Town. The grade is well over 11%, and it goes on for quite some time. There is a bike lane on the hill, but it crosses a busy road. It’s a lot of hard work to climb on a child’s fixed-gear bicycle, and it requires a good amount of bike handling to stay in the lane and not veer inadvertently into the traffic on the road. Most adults will dismount and walk the steepest portions of the rise.
Only about 10% of children with autism ever learn to pedal a two-wheel bicycle. Henry has been riding since he was three. We didn’t know the statistics at the time…in fact, we didn’t even know he had autism. But we knew that our kids should ride a bicycle. We spent long hours teaching him to turn his feet over on the pedals, to steer and to brake. He can certainly navigate a flat stretch of road on a bicycle without worry, and he will spend hours riding over rocks and logs at the Valmont Bike Park in Boulder. Still, I have never seen him climb a serious hill…and sometimes, even on lower grades, he will eject from the seat of his bike and walk a hill instead of committing to the grind to the top.
With all of that in mind, and concerned that Henry would steer into traffic or simply bail off the bike, I figured it would be best for Midori to pedal up the hill. I didn’t give it much thought, actually, and she gladly obliged. She hopped on the little red bicycle, and cranked the pedals as hard as she could until, at last, she was forced to stand. She kept grinding and pushing as she reached the top and proudly proclaimed, I crushed that hill!
Meanwhile, Henry was behind me on the commuter bike, whining. Crying. I want the bike. I want to ride it. It’s my turn.
I did my best to try and pacify him as we climbed behind his sister. Yes, Henry. It’s Midori’s turn now, and you can have a turn when we get to the top of the hill. It will be your turn. Midori now, and you next.
Once at the top, I asked Midori if Henry could ride for a bit, and she handed him the bike. I expected that to be the end of it…but it wasn’t. For the next two blocks, as we pedaled toward our house, Henry cried. Finally, I looked at him and said, I get it.
I turned around, and began riding in the other direction. My husband was bewildered. Where are you going?
Henry knew. He beamed and looked at his father and said, Henry’s riding the hill!
I had not uttered a word about my concerns for safety or the multitude of reasons I felt more comfortable letting Midori pedal her way up that long grade, but my son clearly understood my reservations. He knew he was being discounted, and he would have none of it. I understood with clarity that this was of tremendous importance to Henry, and that the risk was worth the undertaking.
So, I rode to the bottom of the street, ahead of Henry…watching nervously as he descended the hill, worrying that he wouldn’t control his speed or that he would brake too hard and go sailing over the front of the bike. Neither happened. He reached the bottom, flashed a grin, and then turned to face the climb.
I then watched as Henry gained enough momentum to start the ascent. I was hopeful he would do it, and I knew it would crush him if he had to dismount and walk. Henry poured every ounce of effort into his two little legs as I watched him turn the pedals and stand up, rock his body intuitively side-to-side and, in a perfectly straight line, reach the top of the hill. Will himself to the top of the hill.
My husband patted him on the back, as we exchanged a look of surprise. Good job, Henry! You did that! You made it all the way to the top, all on your own!
Henry was not surprised. He looked at my husband indignantly, and stated simply I didn’t fall.
That’s self-esteem. It’s taking a risk, putting in the work, and actually accomplishing something. It’s not about being satisfied with the stories that we tell our children – that they can be anything, that they are strong enough or talented enough for this team or that team, or that the participation ribbon is well-deserved for showing up at all. It’s about unfolding your own story and learning who you are and what you can actually do.
Self-esteem is about knowing yourself in a way that others do not.
Unstructured play is important because it gives children the chance to discover their strengths and weaknesses in their own time. The risks are real and not contrived. There is uncertainty and the possibility of failure. By contrast, structured play activities, where children work for accolades and trophies conducted in an adult-directed environment, don't provide the same sense of freedom. Teachers and coaches give detailed instructions of how to play the game. Children are constantly being evaluated and activities are being spoon-fed. The real risks are ameliorated. In the end, the biggest payoffs are often for the adults themselves.