Parents of Little League kids walk a fine line. On the one hand, they are responsible for teaching their children rules, competitive spirit, team unity, goal setting and physical toughness. On the other hand, they must always keep in mind that baseball is a game, that sportsmanship is the keystone, that their children are in it for fun and that their offspring are not vehicles for their own failed dreams.

The events of the past couple weeks in the Avon Grove and Oxford areas with the girls' teams have brought those issues to the fore.

When a league officials screwed up the screening of birth certificates for the Oxford softball 10-and-under team, the mistake cost the team its post-season opportunities and left a bitter feelings with the parents of the team of the violating girl as well as the team that discovered the error in their opponents.

And yet, as we watched the girls play, it was refreshing to see them developing mental and physical toughness. These pre-teen girls were not at home playing with Barbie dolls, and they were growing in their knowledge of the game and its strategies. It will serve them well as they grow in their professions and need to understand the rules of the games of business and life.

Seeing 10- and 11-year-olds run, pitch and catch also convinced anyone who watched them that they were on their way to becoming athletic young ladies who attended to their health and physical fitness in the future.

There was another pleasing aspect of girls' softball play: They were bonding with their fathers and learning that their dads valued them not just as cream puffs and prom queens, but as capable young adults.

That's the good part.

The questionable part is legendary among observers of youth sports. And while we are not talking about the Avon Grove and Oxford softball parents here, everyone knows what is meant by "Little League parents."

It's the intensity that's thrust upon these young souls at an early age. It is the attitude that winning is valued, and losing is disgrace. It is the value that children must sacrifice their desires at the expense of other, more solitary or relaxed activities to be winners -- to practice even when it's extremely uncomfortable; to despair when they lose.

It's only natural to want children to succeed, be it in sports, school or creative activities. But being pushed by parents who are living their dreams through their children does not yield the returns the older generations hope for. In fact, it often gets the concepts of play and work mixed up, and what starts out as a recreational activity, eg. youth soccer, turns into toil with no time left for unstructured recreation.

Free play without the strictures of need-to-win or be-the-best begets curiosity and creativity. It develops in children the ability to invent and solve problems in the future. It makes them happy.

Let the parents of these young athletes keep encouraging them to be all they can be. But let them also remember that the ultimate goal is the fun, and that's why they call it "playing the game."

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