A few weeks ago, a group of children were playing hockey on a suburban street in my community when a neighbor complained. The police came and the game ended. I can only imagine where the children went afterwards. Likely home to their computers and gaming stations. They had little choice but to became sedentary, adding further to problems like obesity and social isolation.
The more rambunctious might have got creative and committed some petty crime. I shouldn't say it (I shouldn't even think it), but deep down I hope whoever complained got their house egged. What an un-neighborly thing to do. Such acts of incivility tell our children they have no place in our communities. It tells them to go away. Worse, it threatens all the building blocks of good citizenship and attachment to community.
The city of Kingston got it right last year when they passed a law (by only a slim margin, mind you) to allow road hockey without too many restrictions. Games can have as many players as show up (with today's smaller families, there isn't much worry about massive hordes of children playing road hockey on the empty streets of sprawling suburbs). Games can only be played from 9 AM until 8 PM and only on streets with restricted speed limits. And the kids (and adults) have to be respectful of traffic and their neighbors.
When I think about the way we complain about today's youth, I can't help but think we adults need to take much more responsibility for our "me-thinking" ways. I'm not convinced the kids are the problem. They want to play. And yes, they are occasionally noisy, and one or two can be rude to passing motorists (were we any different at that age?). But as a community, if we want this next generation to feel a part of their society and behave appropriately, we'd be wise to make sure they know we like them and that they belong.
There is a difference between genuine compassion and what Buddhists call "idiot compassion". I talk a lot more about this in my book, "The We Generation." Street hockey is a good example of why the distinction is so important. Idiot compassion is us adults trying to keep the kids safe by removing them from our streets. It would be us insisting they leave their neighborhoods and play in designated places, usually places where they need parents to drive them. We would have them isolated, safe, fat, and dependent.
Genuine compassion gives children what they really need, not what makes those raising them feel safe and secure. Or makes curmudgeon-like neighbors happy. Children need everything road hockey gives them. Psychologically, and physically, the informality of the pick up game teaches children:
• How to organize their own activities.
• How to create and follow rules of their own making (good lessons for active citizens who can monitor their behavior themselves).
• How to exercise (children in informal activities get more exercise than when playing formal team sports).
• How to resolve conflict (there is no referee).
• How to include everyone who wants to play without an adult telling them what to do (as the kid with the glasses, at least I could I always play nets, or be the lone defender while other, better players, were up front scoring the goals).
Of course, there are parents who will argue that those pick up games are brutal to their child's self-esteem. Every child doesn't get to play equally. I say, let it be so. Let the children figure this out themselves. When things get really out of hand, and there's bullying and intimidation, that's when parents should get involved. Then it's our turn to go outside and see if we can help our child feel included. In my experience, a little nudge from a concerned adult is all it takes to shame kids into being more inclusive.
Our compassion for our kids, and giving them the formative experiences they need to grow up, begins with these small acts of inclusion. For our children's sake, let the games go on!