As a kid, I was into a little of everything. I tried swimming, gymnastics, Brownies (the precursor to Girl Scouts), tennis, ballet and other dance classes, piano. I made a valiant but completely unathletic attempt at joining my school’s volleyball team. In our cul-de-sac the neighborhood kids and I would play catch or bat a ball around. I would take my dad’s tools and build things out of scrap wood and materials I stole from construction sites nearby. I was fairly awful at everything except for tennis, but I loved being outdoors and climbing trees, riding my bike, rollerblading, shooting hoops in our driveway, and playing around.
I managed to climb to the top of the trees in the backyard without falling down, but landed on my tailbone and had the wind knocked out of me when the swing I was on in our backyard broke at the height of the upswing. The same thing happened when I attempted a front flip off a too-low balance beam on the school playground.
For an unathletic kid, I was incredibly active. I participated in concert band and marching band for several years. I read a lot and played video and computer games and danced around to Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd in the living room. I watched Star Wars and Indiana Jones on VHS. I danced on top of desks with another teacher’s kid to New Kids on the Block when Mom and her colleagues were in teachers’ meetings after school. While our mothers were finishing paperwork at the end of the school day, I played “dodgeball” with wet paper towels with yet another teacher’s kid in an empty classroom. I got a black eye in elementary school when I did a handstand with a blue raquetball ball in one hand; I toppled down on top of my hands, essentially punching myself in the face.
I was an A student in a competitive school district, but I always could’ve studied more. I could’ve read more, taken more difficult classes, pushed myself to be the top of my class.
Eh. I’m happy with how I turned out. My parents let me be a kid and let me have a busy, full childhood, then let me make my own, sometimes foolish mistakes once I became a young adult. Now that I’m a full-fledged “adult” (ME?), I appreciate their parenting even more.
Childhood in Taiwan, in Asia, is different. Kids are in school early until late, and they study at home and on weekends. They’re multilingual before they hit puberty. They can use an abacus faster than I can use a calculator. These kids are brilliant and hard-working. They’re funny and kind and generous and quick to correct me when I make mistakes on the board.
The vast majority, though, can’t catch a ball lobbed their way. Forget swinging a bat at one or catching one in a mitt or throwing one into a basketball hoop. Some of them are so uncoordinated that watching them walk is a bit like watching that weird game show Wipeout.
Sure, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese and Korean kids are consistently outperforming Westerners on standardized tests. But should we be willing to change the Western childhood in order to compete? No one can really argue that one way of life is better than the other, but every family will certainly have a preference.
Within the next decade maybe I’ll have a child of my own. Personally, I hope the kid can tell me what a pronoun is and what offsides means in sports, primarily because I always get confused. I’m not terribly picky. If my future child is a complete dunce, I won’t be disappointed, as long as he or she really tries. “‘F’ for ‘F-ort’, honey!”