Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How (Not) to Talk To Boys

Maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive to language right now. Or maybe I just strongly believe that little boys should have the freedom to be little boys, without hearing verbal messages that imply they're somehow not manly enough.

Last night, I attended my 6-yr-old son's first baseball game of the season. This is the first year he's in coach-pitch baseball; instead of hitting the ball off of a tee, the kids hit balls lobbed by a pitching machine. (Well, unless they miss it too many times. Then they get to whack it off the tee.) For the most part, it's an age-appropriate introduction to the sport, and the boys and girls on his team, who range from age 6 to age 8, seem to enjoy it.

But I heard one comment last night that made my cringe.

The young boy who was playing right field was, um, not exactly paying attention to the game anymore. It was late in the game, and his focus had wandered elsewhere. His body was turned toward the playground located just outside the ball field fence, and he was kicking at the dirt.

His coach, meanwhile, was touring the outfield, trying to get his players' heads in the game. "Ball player ready!" he'd call, and his players would hunch forward and bend their knees, with their gloves at the ready. Except the right fielder. So the coach wandered over.

"Timmy,' he said (except he didn't say Timmy, 'cause that's not the kid's real name), "are you one of those who loves to play with the sand?"

The kid didn't answer.

The coach wandered closer. "I think you are. I think you're one who likes to play in the sand. Are you one of those who loves to play in the sand, or are you a ballplayer?!"

Photo by Greg Westfall via Flickr

The kid didn't respond. He reluctantly turned from the playground and crouched over, but I couldn't help but wonder what message he took home from the coach's words.

Can't a kid -- a 6-year-old kid, no less! -- love to play in the sand AND be a ballplayer? Why do the two have to be exclusive? And in this case, it was very, very clear that the coach was communicating that "ballplayer" was preferable to "sand player."

I fear that the young boy in question will learn that playing in the sand is not OK. That it's better -- and manlier -- to play ball. But who says so? And why? That I think, is what troubles me the most about the coach's comment: the child has no way to critically analyze the messages that are sent his way. He (and virtually all children) hear the things said by the adults around them, and accept them as true. Without even realizing it, this kid will soon internalize the idea that playing the sand is bad.

I understand that the coach doesn't want his outfielders playing in the sand during a game. But isn't there a better way to communicate that message? How about, "Timmy, get ready! Hands on your knees!"?

What do you think?

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