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Want to save democracy? Start with your Little League

Little League players and coaches listen while the National Anthem is sung following a parade at the Cabot Street baseball field in Newton.Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe/file 2015

"There's just so much going wrong right now, it's hard to focus," a friend with three kids told me recently at school pickup, after the conversation veered - as it often does these days - into national politics. "Are we supposed to talk to our kids about impeachment? What would I say? Is it better to take them to a protest?"

At the PTO meeting, in line at the grocery, getting my teeth cleaned - everyone, it seems, wants to talk about What We're Going To Do About America. Parents are worried about what to teach their kids about current events - not just impeachment but children detained at the border, a melting planet, a national allergic reaction to the truth, the inability of our leaders to make crucial decisions for our health and safety - let's call it our paralyzing national dysfunction.


And for good reason. With deep political polarization, attacks against the free press, voter suppression and questions about foreign election interference coming up in 2020, American parents should be worried about what kind of democracy we will be leaving for our children during this particularly trying time in our Republic's history.

And though a growing civics education revival is underway, parents can't necessarily count on schools to cover these topics thoroughly. In most states, civics education fell off the map decades ago and was replaced by pressure to raise reading and math scores and STEM.

Things look bleak right now, yet there is a lot that parents can do. As Ted McConnell, executive director of the civics education organization Civic Mission of Schools, said, "Parents are kids' first and best civics teachers," because as research has shown, they can model civic behavior like voting and volunteering, making it more likely their kids will participate as well.

Before packing up the kids to attend a protest or sitting down to describe the impeachment process (when maybe your details, like mine, are shaky at best), consider the smaller ways parents can play a key role in helping kids understand something crucial at this jittery time for democracy: their role as citizens. And while an important part of that role is politics and partisanship, good citizenship also means engaging with and supporting a community despite those things.


In other words, parents certainly can model civic behavior at a protest or the voting booth, but let's not forget the impact of teaching good citizenship outside of it: at youth group, at the YMCA or the JCC, doing community theater, or at my family's personal community of choice, our neighborhood Little League.

Over the last decade, my three sons have played hundreds of games and my husband has given untold number of volunteer hours coaching and serving on the board of our community-run baseball league. There are so many reasons joining a community league can provide the kind of civics education needed right now; for not only has the league provided fun and sports camaraderie for our kids, it's provided an invaluable opportunity for parents like us to model community participation.

Community participation is a cornerstone of American-style democracy, because it provides a chance for people to work together for good outside the realm of politics - something that feels crucial at this very dysfunctional moment, when everything is about politics. Parents can practice the great American tradition of civic association on field clean-up day, working the concession stand or coaching a team, teaching kids that a group of people can work together toward a common goal, even if they don't agree on whom to vote for in 2020.


Neighborhood baseball leagues are also one of a host of groups that give kids a chance to plug in and be part of a community, to feel connected to society - something that is being threatened as a rising number of young people live in "civic deserts" where there are few or no chances to participate in public life. Recent research on civic deserts shows that young people growing up without options for civic engagement are more likely to be disengaged from politics and current events, less likely to see actions like voting as important, and even less likely to help a neighbor in need.

Sports in general, experts say, teach good citizenship, and baseball is no different: being part of a team, witnessing how individual actions contribute to the whole, maintaining civil behavior in the face of adversity (and bad calls), and balancing the ideas of competition and cooperation - they are all democracy lessons in disguise.

Parents who volunteer for groups like Little League are not only healthier and have a greater sense of purpose - all great things to model for kids- but also the act of volunteering itself has a big influence on young people's future selves. Every time parents show up at the baseball field, they are transmitting social values and showing support for those kinds of activities.


And perhaps most importantly in today's world, Little League provides an invaluable civic space to the community: a place where people from different backgrounds, cultures and political persuasions can come together in fun and common purpose.

After nine years coaching and being part of the board, this fall my husband had to give up his Little League duties - two of our three sons aged out, and his work schedule became too demanding. Our league is finding it harder and harder to recruit volunteers to help run it, something that's happening to other civic organizations across the country as well. PTO membership, Boy Scouts, and overall rates of volunteering for civic, school and church organizations are all seeing sharp declines as work schedules, competition from elite kids activities like travel teams and increased traffic and commute times make it harder for parents to volunteer. My husband worries that there won't be enough parents to replace him and all the parents and caregivers who have given so many hours to the league over the years.

What a loss. It wasn't the hard-earned victories and defeats, the season our middle son was the best and only left-handed catcher in the league, or the time our oldest unwittingly wore his little brother's way-too-small pants to the game, that made the league so special to us. It was the long, hot Saturdays at the park on the bleachers with the other moms, dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles who will forever feel like family to us. Families who for the most part didn't look, talk or probably vote like we did - but no matter, we were in it together, win or lose.


Not at any time in recent history has fall ball and spring training felt so vital to holding our country together. Maybe we should worry less about describing the details of impeachment to our kids, and more about making the time to be part of a community. There's no guarantee that this kind of citizenship education will save us from the trouble we are in, but maybe it's worth a try? You can fit it in between protests. Because Little League is about so much more than baseball.