Today, I’ll tackle the dark side of one of our most cherished, wholesome institutions: youth soccer. (Is nothing sacred?)
Last night (Monday), I attended a panel discussion on “Building Social Capital”, facilitated by Dr. Susan Herman of the Northern Leadership Center. Briefly, social capital is the density of human social connections either within an individual’s life or within a community. It is increased by such things as knowing your neighbors, working on a political campaign, joining a baseball league, participating in a reading group, attending church, serving on a board or commission, and volunteering your time just about anywhere. Higher social capital — at both the collective and individual levels — is linked to better health, higher education, and economic prosperity. An excellent popular introduction to social capital is Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which you’ll find on my “Further reading” page.
As an example of social capital-building, somebody pointed to the Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association fields at Wilbur and Davis. In one sense, I have to agree. It brings together, for acquaintance and team involvement, young people who otherwise might not meet. This is a good.
But how do those young people get to the soccer field complex? Since it is not served by public transportation and is within walking distance of only a handful of houses, almost all children must be driven by their parents. I want to look at two consequences of this: (1) these youth may not play soccer with any autonomy, since they require their parents to drive them; thus, (2) the social class of youth who may play is determined by the location, since only children whose parents can afford to own cars (and don’t have to work evenings) can attend.
(Having been there a couple of times, I recall — tell me if I’m off base, here — that the families were almost entirely Caucasian. Maybe this comes from soccer’s being perceived as a “white” sport, but I suspect that increased accessibility for lower-income children would bring increased ethnic and cultural diversity.)
Thus, youth soccer in Fairbanks offers what Putnam calls “bonding social capital” — the strengthening of ties within and between fairly homogeneous groups. Bonding social capital is necessary, but it can lead to a group’s alienation (of itself or of others) if it is not balanced by its complement, “bridging social capital” — the ties between unlike groups.
Not only are children ferried to their games by their parents, but they do this to play a game with fixed rules, refereed by adults, at regular, specified times, with children of the same age. What this takes away from children are many chances to negotiate rules (possibly flexible) of games with children of varying ages and backgrounds. It takes away chances to start spontaneous “pick-up” games of soccer with neighboring children. It takes them away from chances to know their neighbors and their neighborhood better. In the adult world, we are thrust together with all different ages, classes, and cultures of people — and we must negotiate rules and interactions on our own. When we put our kids in too many structured, supervised activities, with people too much like them, we deprive them of chances to develop these adult skills. We deny them chances to practice building bridging social capital.
Of course, parents may say: But people live so far and wide here! How else do you expect our children to play soccer?
I would answer: Why have we caused our children to live so far away from others that their only chance to play with their peers is at a scheduled, structured, segregated event for which they are wholly dependent on adults? Many people say that Fairbanks is a great place to raise kids — and indeed I believe it is. But a suburban lifestyle stunts children in their autonomy, spontaneity, and ability to develop socially.
Perhaps this is extreme. I don’t mean to condemn youth soccer as a social retardant. The fact is, I plan to take my daughters there when they’re old enough to play: all that running around with other kids is so good for them. And meeting new friends — even if of the same race, class, and age — will stretch them socially.
I just hope we can live in a way where their autonomy, spontaneity, and free play with neighbors become the norm.