Childhood choices: is it okay to recruit a 9-year old?

Jaden Newman is 9 years old. She also just became the youngest person ever recruited by a college program.

Jaden plays basketball. I’m no talent scout but I saw a 30-second video of her playing – and she’s damn good. Clearly, the University of Miami thinks so, too.

While I understand why many people are celebrating this fantastic achievement, it still makes me squirm a little. I’m not sure that we should be celebrating colleges recruiting 4th graders.

It’s wonderful that Jaden is such a talented, hard working kid who has found something that she loves to do. But can’t it just be left at that? Isn’t that enough? Why does basketball need to be something that defines her future right now? There’s a lot of baggage that comes along with being labeled a “phenom” before you hit double-digits.

I’m not sure why a university needs to take ownership of Jaden’s future at this point. She should have the freedom to wake up next Wednesday morning and decide that she doesn’t want to play basketball anymore and that she is much more interested in the debate team. Childhood is all about being free to explore who you want to be for the rest of your life. And if there is pressure of a college scholarship and this precedent-setting recruitment, I worry it will stifle her vision for herself.

Maybe Jaden really did find the thing she wants to do for the rest of her life at the age of three. Maybe this is just giving her a great option down the road. I hope that is what happens.

When I was three, I started my career and I identified myself as an actor for the next 18 years. Then, when I was 22, I slowly realized that I didn’t want to do that job anymore. I had never even bothered to ask myself what else there was, because it hadn’t occurred to me that there were other options available. I assumed I was incapable of anything else. Suddenly, I had no clue who I was. I identified myself as an actor before I identified myself as anything else. If you had asked me who I was, I would have said:

1. An actor

2. A girl

3. A Canadian

So, if I wasn’t an actor anymore, was I anything at all?

For me, it worked out – I don’t have any regrets. I was able to find a new path and eventually found my self-worth somewhere else (thank you, therapy). But not all kid actors end up in a good place. I hope Jaden knows that she has the ability to be something different if she wants – even if it doesn’t come with the media attention and the prestige of college sports. Just because she is good at something doesn’t mean she is required to do it.

When little kids say they want to be firefighters, we don’t suit them up, put an axe in their hands and send them out there. But with sports, music and acting, it seems like the rules are different.

I believe that it’s always important to know, wherever you are in life, that you are allowed to change your mind. None of us have to be just One Thing. If we all had to commit to what we wanted to be when we were little – there would be a whole lot of firefighters and ballerinas. And my husband would be a bird.

So, go do what you love, Jaden. Kick ass and have fun – whether you want to be a basketball player, a firefighter, a ballerina or a bird. I’m pretty sure you’d be awesome at all of them.

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14 thoughts on “Childhood choices: is it okay to recruit a 9-year old?

  1. Lisa – you are so right here! As a middle school teacher, one of the greatest gifts I have is discussing with my students what they want to do in life. And the (serious) answers are one of the greatest freebies of my career.

    Thanks for being a voice for all of those dreamers out there who still don’t have a plan!

    • One of my favorite quotes – “Not all those who wander are lost” – J.R.R. Tolkien. Plans are overrated. 🙂 It seems like do you some pretty amazing work – thank you for that. And for reading!

  2. I can remember wanting to be a ballerina, a teacher, an artist, a vet and Anjelica Huston by the time I was nine. The great and necessary thing about childhood is that you think anything is possible, that you can be anything even if it’s not necessarily an option – you figure out what you’re good at, what you enjoy and ultimately who you want to be. I mean, it’s a hard road when you realise that your dream of being Anjelica Huston isn’t going to pan out or you eventually get over your Addams Family obsession but that’s the point isn’t it? Discovery. If you’re only responsible enough to drink alcohol at twenty-one years old in America then how are you able to commit to a college and a life plan at nine? The whole thing just sounds pretty sinister. I had a whole and perhaps unfair visual of her parents and college officials doing that Mr. Burns hand thing then some Fagan style hopping around a la Oliver! because I can’t see anyone of a logical mind with good intentions allowing this to happen. At best, it’s misguided and harmful. I just hope she has the right people around her.

    Ah, that not so common common sense…

    • What a great comment – thank you. And I’m sorry the Anjelica Huston thing didn’t work out for you, but I bet you are way better at being Joanne.

  3. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a writer, but I always knew I couldn’t just be a writer. At least not coming out the gate. And here I am, 34 years old, and I still don’t know what else I want to do to support my writing habit.

    This fourth-grade dribbler: it’s consent that always makes me wonder about kids. How do we know they have her consent? Was she coerced into it by her parents? Has she made an intense commitment? Or has she merely secured a scholarship at a very young age?

    I’m not a bad musician. If someone had complimented my music instead of writing when I was eight, would I be a rockstar today?

    I dunno. All the best, Jaden. Hope you have fun shooting hoops.

    • It’s interesting to think about those paths not taken, isn’t it? I agree with you about consent with kids. Personally, I don’t feel like I was a fully-formed human capable of making decent decisions until I was about 26.

  4. “When little kids say they want to be firefighters, we don’t suit them up, put an axe in their hands and send them out there. But with sports, music and acting, it seems like the rules are different.”

    This is so profoundly true!

    I too was slated to go to college early (at 13, not 9, but still) and I’m forever grateful my parents decided against it.

  5. The USA is the only country whose university system spends more money on sports than it does the science program. In fact, we’re the only country in the West where the universities have major established programs on this level. Everyone else is more worried about academics.

    I love basketball and there are phenoms. Would someone deny Mozart a piano as a child because of his age? I remember being in university and practicing with a kid in 8th grade that our team let join us. He clearly had court skills.

    I don’t deny they might be born for it but what if they suffer a serious injury that impairs their skills? What happens then? And universities … it’d be nice to see them in schools going “you’re way ahead in math and science, we’d like to recruit you for our physics program”. Our priorities are just wrong.

    I follow a teen on my FB. She started university at 15 (still in H.S. as well) but then again her goal is to be the first astronaut on Mars and she involved with NASA programs. I can live with that. Basketball … as much as I love the sport, that is all it is a sport. Won’t change the world one way or the other. Let the kid find her way first. Sorry, this was a long comment!

    • I love long comments!

      I think it’s a fine line. I wouldn’t deny Mozart a piano when he was 9, but I wouldn’t want someone trying to get him to commit to play with a certain orchestra when he was twice that age.

      One is encouraging his passion in the present moment – the other is trying to benefit of his potential future.

      And I totally agree with you – let the kid find her way. Even if it means that the NASA girl decides to play basketball, instead.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

  6. I coached basketball for a few years. Third graders to eight graders. It is just impossible to figure out how a child is going to turn out as they age. Will they grow a lot or not so much? There is a tendency for youth coaches to overreact with talented kids which can result in overlooking others who improve later. Also, there is a reluctance to admit when the coach is wrong about the child. They then tend to blame the child for not becoming what the grownups predicted. I have seen kids suffer from that unreasonable approach.

    • Yes. I think this is an example of exactly what I was concerned about. It’s just such an important time of growth and self-discovery…who really knows what will happen?

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