I was watching football with friends recently when an old high school buddy's 7-year-old daughter let me know “I'm the fastest in my class — .even the boys!” I thought aloud, “Must be fun never getting caught at Tag.” To which she responded, “We don't get to play Tag anymore.” Talk about sucking the air out of the room. I should've just stayed focused on the Raiders taking another beating but I needed resolution, so I asked her why?
Apparently, there was an incident involving a kid that was “it” all day and a mother that didn't find this fair. This is what put an end to this 7-year-old girl’s run at possible Tag greatness. Ending the game altogether?! Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater — an apparently slow baby, unable to catch up to tag anyone “it.”
It is disheartening to hear the stories of childhood fun being removed from schools these days. No more competition. No winners or losers. Some schools go so far as to implement “no touch” policies. What exactly are we teaching these kids?
I understand many of the problems parents and teachers worry about – bullying, kids feeling excluded, inappropriate touching. But aren't we taking it a little too far? I'm certainly not a child psychologist, but it would seem the role of the playground is to teach kids of the trials and tribulations they will face as they get older. Removing the opportunity to grow and face these rites of passage has to have a negative affect right? And over a game of Tag?! C'mon, man!
Where is the parenting?
When we have to legislate playground etiquette over an incident as innocuous as a kid unhappy about a game of Tag then we have lost as a society. This is an incident that would have taken Ward Cleaver one episode to reconcile. He would've sat the Beaver down and said, “Son, get out there and try playing Tag again tomorrow. It's just a game.” End of problem. If we aren't careful, we'll end up coddling a generation of people unequipped to deal with everyday life. Wussies. I know that may be harsh for some parents to hear, but try instilling a little confidence in your kids, instead of rushing to an unnecessary rescue at the first sign of adversity. I'm sure the stigma this kid now carries as “The Tag Ruiner” is far more detrimental than his day of being the slowest kid on the playground.
And where were the teachers?
I find it hard to believe this incident didn't come to a yard duty’s attention first. How about a tactful intervention? How hard would it have been to pull a kid aside – a good kid, a kid with a little empathy in his heart? Believe me, there are tons of them out there, and the teachers know who they are. “Hey Peter, do me a favor please. Little Bobby is getting upset that he is ‘it’ this long, please just let him tag you.” Guess what you've done here. You've let Little Bobby save face, and as an added benefit, you've instilled leadership values into Peter. Future leaders are forged in the fires of playground games; kids that will intervene when they see a kid being excluded or bullied. Without these moments of childhood adversity being allowed to play out, we not only stifle the growth of the kid feeling picked on but prevent the development of the leaders that will eventually lift them up.
I can go on and on about how I think this “Everybody gets a trophy” generation is going to suffer long term. Learning to lose is just as important as learning to win. We force kids to do their homework, but let them quit playing a playground game when it isn't going their way?! What is this lesson – selective diligence? Has it really changed this much since “we” were kids?
I realize times have changed. Teachers now live in fear of parents, so afraid to intervene and discipline kids. Parents are just as quick to look towards frivolous litigation rather than look inwardly at their poor parenting. They want the teacher to let their kid know that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, but would prefer they don't show them how it works. And I realize some parents just don't want a teacher to discipline their child, especially when dealing with their kids’ manners, ethics, and upbringing. But we need to find a happy medium, because I heard nothing but horror stories today regarding schools and their disciplinary actions for students. From both parent and teacher alike.
One mother told me an incident in which her fourth grade child was reprimanded for hugging her best friend. For hugging?! I have some idea as to the true intention of the no touch/hugging policy – sexual harassment amongst youth is an ever increasing dilemma – but read the room when possible for god's sake. When she mentioned to the school that signs saying “Hugs not drugs” were hanging on school grounds, they removed the signs and dropped the motto altogether. Baby and bathwater all over again.
I'm not a parent or a teacher, so my words probably carry little to no meaning to most. But I was a kid. And being a prisoner of my own experiences, I can tell this tale…
I started kindergarten at Van Allen School, a small country school on Highway 120 between Manteca and Escalon. The school was only K-5, with each class having only maybe 16-20 kids. Every morning recess there was a soccer game played by the older kids. I rode the bus to school with the Nunes kids from the dairy down the road, one of them being Jeff Nunes. He was a 4th grader when I started school, but he was a big kid and pretty much the “Playground Boss.” Most of the kindergarten and first grade kids stayed in the jungle gym/sandbox area, but I wanted to be part of the soccer game, as did my best friend Elliot Nunes. We slowly crept to the field one morning. We watched as every kid that wanted to play lined up on the wall and were chosen by a captain. And every kid was chosen. Importantly, I don't recall the “everybody gets picked” being a teacher imposed ideal. As I said, Van Allen was a small school, so bodies were needed. But it was all-inclusive. When Elliot and myself finally got the nerve to line up on the wall, I remember one of the older kids saying “Scram, kids You're too little to play!” But Jeff Nunes would have no such thing on his playground. “Elliot is my cousin, and the skinny one is my neighbor. They can play.” And that was that. We showed up to the field every morning to play. I remember that we'd keep the same teams for the week to help build continuity. Here's something interesting: We'd keep score, and the winners would celebrate while the losers looked forward to new teams. That's the way a game is supposed to unfold.
Just like clockwork, I was picked last every time. I never felt bad about it. I was the smallest and slowest person out there, so of course I was picked last. But I was still playing. More importantly, I was interacting with other kids. I remember another kindergarten classmate, Carrie Luis, eventually showed up to play, obviously inspired by mine and Elliot's brave move to venture off the sandbox reservation. And I was still picked last. Carrie was a Portuguese girl from another dairy and she could run like the wind. So there we were, three little Portagee kids playing soccer with the big kids. I got picked on and bullied more than most, but I deserved it. I had a smart mouth – imagine that. Jeff Nunes would intervene, but only when I didn't deserve to be picked on, and the soccer kept on.
Then one day it happened! No, I was still picked last, but the fifth grade kid that picked teams that week called me by my name! Months of playground sports effort was paying off in social dividends. Quick Summation: I've been picked on; I'm always last; I'm never touching the ball; and a girl is being picked ahead of me. But I'm still playing, and meeting other kids with similar interests.
This soccer game continued every morning for years. Eventually, Jeff Nunes was gone to a different school. Now I was one of the kids in charge of keeping the all-inclusive game going the way Jeff had taught us. So when my kindergarten sister, little coach Andrea Hiatt, made her way over to the field to play. Her big brother Chris was able to let the other kids know, “She's my sister, and her skinny friend is Jazzy. They can play.” And the game continued, without parental or teacher intervention.
By the way, little Carrie Luis went on to become one of the most decorated high school and collegiate runners this area has ever known. I wonder if it would have been different had someone taken our soccer game away, because skinny, always-picked-last Chris' mother came down and complained about the unfair soccer game. We didn't have to worry about that, though, because we handled stuff in-house, playground style. Letting playground leaders such as Jeff Nunes teach us the proper way to behave. I'm sure an older version of himself passed the wisdom that he imparted.
And that's how easy it was. I don't know why it all seems so complicated and convoluted these days. It’s probably because it's not the kids that have changed.
So to the parents and teachers of this town, I say “Tag, you're it!” It’s time to start working together to benefit the next generation of kids. And if you don't like it, bring it up with Jeff Nunes. He said I could play.
“It's not Where ya do, It's What ya do.”
To tag columnist Chris Teicheira, catch him at firstname.lastname@example.org.