Monday, March 08, 2010
Last weekend I saw the movie "The Tooth Fairy" starring Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as "The Rock." I wouldn't expect a kid's movie to drip with irony since irony isn't really a kid thing. But this film had both obvious and subtle irony, which is pretty sophisticated for a movie that throws Johnson into pink tights, a tutu, and wings within the first ten minutes. He plays a hockey defenseman on a farm team in Lansing, Mich., who had previously played in the NHL. He's known as the "Tooth Fairy" or "Tooth" for short, for his proclivity at knocking out opponents' teeth. So you catch on to the ironic set-up from the get go: a man known as the tooth fairy eventually becomes a real tooth fairy. Real is the operative word, since the character finds himself forced into tooth fairy duty because he dares to tell his girlfriend's daughter that the tooth fairy isn't real. Irony again – he says they aren't real, they turn out to be real, and he has to be one for two weeks.
The premise of the film is that we all give up too quickly on our dreams. The "Tooth" argues kids are better off if told the hard truths of life without any sugar coating (which ironically causes tooth decay). Early in the film he has an encounter with a young fan who declares, "I'm the third best scorer on my team." The father beams proudly. "I see," says Tooth, "And I bet you want to play in the NHL." "Oh yeah." "Well you see kid, you're how old, 10, and you are the third best scorer on your team of 10 year olds. And there are hundreds of 10-year-old teams where there are kids who are the number one scorer on their team. But somewhere there's a 10-year-old playing with 12-year-olds who's the best scorer on his team. And even he probably won't make it to the NHL. So find yourself another dream."
Based on the level of irony in the film, I expected a quick flash forward where we see the kid all grown up in a Penguins uniform and pushing a puck towards the goal. But the movie doesn't always settle for the easy resolution. Well, actually it does have a bunch of easy resolutions but just not that one. Which is good, because of course the "Tooth" was right in one aspect. No matter what the sport and no matter how good our child is, there's always someone out there who's better. All of us need the proper perspective. Ironically, and after seeing the film I'm much more in tune with the ironic, I think most kids recognize that what they dream isn't necessarily what they'll achieve. The kids I've met through years of youth sports have a keen eye as to where they fit in the ability levels of their peers. But the dream of success in sports keeps them motivated through the tough times and gives them a connection with their sports' heroes.
Parents, on the other hand, can have their own dreams, which they expect their kids to own. Johnny may just want to play soccer with his friends and have some fun, but Dad is pushing him to consider college soccer. Dad cringes at mistakes on the field because he sees them as roadblocks to achieving the dream, so he becomes hypercritical of everything Johnny and his teammates do. He may even drag Johnny from club to club trying to find the team that wins and has the prestige worthy of his dream. In the meantime, the reason Johnny plays has been completely forgotten. Does Johnny idolize Ronaldinho or Beckam? Probably. Does he fanaticize about playing at Wembley. No doubt. But it's too early to start nursing that dream into reality. Johnny will switch role model loyalties a dozen times and have scores of dreams before settling on the dream he wants to pursue with hopes of accomplishing.
As parents our job is to support the dreams our kids have and let them own the experience. We can have dreams for our kids, but we need to be careful not to ask our kids to substitute our dreams for theirs. The US Youth Soccer Coaching Education Department developed a Vision document to address the issues of how kids develop athletically and what the fundamental reasons for playing youth sports should be. Most parents understand childhood development as it relates to things such as toilet training, reading, and tying shoes. They don't expect their six-year-old to understand fractions or drive a car. Yet when it comes to sports, parents can have no understanding of sport development in children. All it takes is some 10-year-old phenomenon from Brazil to make parents anxiously push their own kids to be as good. Here's some more irony: most parents have limited or no youth sports experience themselves. So how are they supposed to know what realistic standards are for kids? This Vision document lays out six stages of youth sports development. Competition doesn't even enter the picture until stage four. Up to then kids need to learn the skills necessary to compete, develop the aerobic and muscular growth to execute sophisticated skills, and mature emotionally so they can handle the pressures and expectations of competitive play. In other words, they need to learn to walk before they learn to run. Dreams at this age should be a way to support an interest in the sport not ends to be ruthlessly and systematically pursued.
It turns out that "Tooth" has a dream of his own – to return to the NHL. So, a few minutes of the film are devoted to montages of "Tooth" doing his own off-hours training to achieve his dream. What sets his dream apart from the young fan he encounters is that he understands both the pitfalls and the difficulties of making the dream come true. The young fan measures his own dream of playing in the NHL by the way it makes him feel. So long as he remains excited and has fun with the dream, then he'll keep it. The Vision document highlights that the number one reason both boys and girls play sports is for fun. Dreams of playing like their heroes simply add to the fun. Making those dreams become work defeats the purpose both of dreaming and playing youth sports. That's ironic.