Little League season is starting for my two boys and it’s going to cost me. Registration for the local community league is $150 per child for a couple of months of games. On top of that, there are uniforms, mitts, bats, and orange slices. There’s also the opportunity cost of the time I’ll spend sitting along the first base line, watching my kids draw pictures in the infield dirt. All told I’m giving the local youth sports industry around $500 or more for the privilege of watching my children not play baseball.
This is a luxury we really can’t afford it. We’re a two-income family and we’ll be spending money on childcare this summer. If we can swing a vacation, we’ll be sinking money into travel and hotels as well. Plus, our primary car is in need of repairs and our credit cards are maxed out. It’s not unlikely that Little League will contribute to family debt.
That said, my boys are playing.
I’m not alone. A recent survey from CompareCards found that 62 percent of parents were carrying debt related to their kid’s extra-curricular activities. Half of the parents said they are paying more than they can afford and 62 percent were stressed out about the cost. Though a relatively small survey funded by a corporation should be taken with a grain of salt, there’s meat there. Everything costs money and there’s a lot of everything. The Joneses have never been busier or harder to keep up with.
I’m stressed out about the cost of Little League and, let’s be clear, I’m hedging my investment. Some parents arrive at the park with kids sporting new cleats, batting gloves, eye black, and packs of sunflower seeds. These parents are spending far more than me. They are totally bought in despite the fact that their children’s chances of going pro are vanishingly slim. According to recent statistics, fewer than 2 percent of children in youth and high school sports will go on to receive a college sports scholarship. Even fewer will turn their sport into a professional career. So why care so much? Why spend so much?
Youth sports have created a $15 billion American industry on the back of peer pressure, parental guilt and economic anxiety.
Do kids get benefits from sports? No doubt. For some kids, getting on the Little League diamond will be one the few times they’ll be active and play outside for the week. For other kids, Little League will help build social intelligence as they learn to be a team player and cooperate. Consider the fact that the Centers for Disease Control found a positive correlation between increased levels of physical activity and improved grades, along with a decreased risk of diabetes, better mental health, and better weight control. But here’s the thing: There are other ways for kids to get all of these benefits and none of them require paying the local youth sports czar couple-hundred bucks. They simply require other kids, the outdoors and some imagination.
I have zero illusions that Little League is going to help my kids in any way. I know because I’ve watched them for a couple of youth sports seasons already. And despite all of the pleading and encouragement from coaches, they will frustrate their teammates by pretending there are Pokemon on the field, rather than playing the game at hand. Still, I’m going to cart them to the field every week. Why? Because my kids asked me to sign them up. They asked me to sign them up because all of their little buddies have signed up. All of their little buddies have signed up because as parents there is nowhere else for their kids to play. All of the children are overscheduled and that leads to a vicious cycle of chasing playdates and gathering opportunities that once would have occurred naturally.
There’s a perfectly fine baseball diamond in my neighborhood. The basepaths are relatively level. There’s a backstop. There are even benches. It will be empty all year. Kids are too busy participating in baseball to simply play it. That, to me, is profoundly sad. If my boys were down there nightly throwing a ball around, I’d accept the cost of their passion no problem. They’re not, which means I’m paying for an activity, not fun. I hate that.
The money that I give to the local youth sports organization does more than simply pay for field access and an awards banquet at the end of the season. My money also pays to perpetuate the idea that there is one good way to play and it requires rigor, skill-building and adult oversight. By paying to put my kids on a Little League field, I’m devaluing the field down the street. Again, this wouldn’t be true if my kids were obsessed with baseball, but they’re not. They’re fine with it — at best.
But this is the way of the world now and there is no relief in sight for parents. But there is one thing I can do to buck the system. As I take my kids to the game, I will remind them that this is supposed to be fun. That’s it. Just fun. And if they are having fun laying on their backs in the outfield, watching the clouds? Well, I suppose the money I spent at least afforded us some learnings. They don’t need uniforms to daydream.