Pint-Sized Phenoms: From Playtime to Professional Work

Perhaps it's time to start Carston's art career. In fact, I may be too late if I want him to compete with five-year-old "prodigy" Aelita Andre. Aelita started painting at 22 months. Her "Abstract Expressoinist" work sells for upwards of $10,000. But if you watch this video of her working (and it is clear based on her statements about watching the sun rise and painting for 24 hours that there is some work going on here) you'd be excused if you thought she was simply playing around in her tutu.

In some ways this might be every toddler and small child's dream: get as dirty as you want, take over a whole room of the house, and fling liquid and glitter about. She looks like she's having fun. If there is any phenom in this family it's clearly Aelita's parents who have some savvy marketing and sales skills.

Given the focus on early achievement and profits it's hard to imagine that Aelita would ever act as selflessly as Meghan Vogel. Vogel, a high school junior in Ohio, made headlines for helping a fellow competitor cross the finish line-- in front of her-- at the state track meet.

Just when you think youth sports have become too professionalized and focused on winning at all costs, a story like this comes along to remind you that they also are a site of life lessons and uplifting stories.

When genuine prodigies come along, like golfer Andy Zhang who made the cut to play in last week's U.S. Open at just 14, it's not as hard to celebrate them. Especially when their parents don't seem overly pushy; Zhang's father actually told him he shouldn't expect to make the cut and so shouldn't fly from Florida to California (note that in the linked New York Times article, the father of another pint-sized phenom, Lexi Thompson, is quoted). Zhang, who spent much of his childhood in China, now lives and trains in Bradenton (presumably at IMG Academies, which I've also written about before).  Seems like we'll be hearing much more from him in the future.

His talents are clearly immense enough to make him a professional at an early age (though not as early as Aelita Andre's).  We can only hope his love for playing the game helps give him an attitude as wonderful as Vogel's.

Should we pay Little Leaguers? (from

Second post over at orgtheory-- this on compensating players in the Little League World Series. Did you watch the Little League World Series last month? It’s possible you missed it in the wake of other news stories, like Hurricane Irene.  But this year’s winners (a team from Huntingdon Beach, California) were also overshadowed by coverage of their own game, as the state of competitive youth baseball and whether or not these “unpaid adolescents” were being exploited became the media’s focus.

Sportswriter Dan Wetzel made his case for compensating Little Leaguers in “Pay the Little League World Series Players.”  Wetzel writes: “Not every Little Leaguer, just the ones who play on television, where their innocence is packaged into a commodity. And, no, they shouldn’t make millions or even hundreds of thousands.  They should get something, maybe several hundred per television appearance. If it made people more comfortable that the money went to a college savings fund or maybe into a trust that becomes available when they’re 18 or 21, so be it.”

Any self-respecting economic sociologist, or sociologist of childhood, will immediately think of Viviana Zelizer’s classic Pricing the Priceless Child after reading this quote.  And you will also know that childhood innocence and compensation do not always mix so well.

I’ve written about how we should think of children’s participation in afterschool activities as a form of children’s work.  Afterschool activities can qualify as “work” both because of prizes won and because of the acquisition of cultural capital that will have a pay-off in the longer run.  I’ve also written about child performers, particularly children on reality television shows, and how they are compensated.  Child performers have always occupied a complicated space in child labor debates, partly because their “work” is often constructed as being “educational.” But I’m not aware of any serious scholarship (sociological, economic, or legal) on compensation of child athletes.


In my opinion compensating child athletes may sound logical on some level, but it is a complicated issue that poses a few problems that are likely insurmountable in today’s commodified world.  The most obvious practical complication has to do with NCAA regulations. If we compensate kids they almost certainly lose their NCAA eligibility.  Of course many of these kids won’t go on to play NCAA baseball, but they may play another NCAA sport.  Compensating them without proper protections in place jeopardizes those future opportunities. (Paying NCAA athletes is another issue that has been batted around for some time, though it also has been talked abouta lot more in the past few months).

Second, and even more complicated, is that if we compensate kids in a way consistent with them being classified as workers or performers (and limiting compensation to those who appear on television makes it more likely they would be classified as performers) that would also limit the number of hours they could “work” and the conditions under which they could labor.  This could impact practice times, length of games, and other parts of the sporting experience.

However, I do believe that kids should be compensated and rewarded for their hard work—particularly when it helps adults benefit financially. One model to look at would be the National Spelling Bee (which, incidentally, is now not only broadcast on ESPN, but also live on ABC in the final rounds).  Finalists receive prizes, like an encyclopedia, along with scholarships, bonds, and cash awards.  Other in-kind gifts like computers and trips are also possible (for example the National Geography Bee winner wins a trip to the Galapagos Islands). Perhaps elite child athletes could receive similar types of awards—like specialized training—that could protect them from NCAA violations.

In the meantime they have to settle for hometown parades and a DVD of their television appearances.  What do you think is fair?

The Eight-hour (play) day?

In last week's post about sports injuries a reader commented, "But how do you regulate the number of hours a kid engages in these activities? For better or worse, it's kind of up to the parents, no?"  The answer to this question is, "Yes, but..." It is true that in the US the family is recognized both legally and culturally as the institution with the most control over childhood. However, the state plays an important role in two areas--education and employment-- and it has done so for nearly a century.  The state mandates that children go to school (compulsory education in this country became law in 1918) and not work more than a certain number of hours each week (federal child labor laws passed in 1938), both efforts that came out of Progressive-era politics (along with labor protections like the eight-hour work day, passed in 1916). Time spent in these domains is almost always outside of the family home, subjecting it to regulation by the law and non-relative adults.

Child performers historically faced scrutiny, though they received an exemption in the 1938 child labor laws, and this scrutiny continues today-- especially as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work become more porous (I have written about this issue elsewhere as it relates to reality television shows).  The number of hours kids can be on-set is heavily regulated and monitored by on-set advocates.  Tutors are also provided to help them keep up with their studies.  Earnings are also partially protected, at least until a child turns 18.

Just as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work have blurred, so have the boundaries between education, work, and play for kids.  I argue that children's afterschool activities should be seen as a new form of child labor (you can read an academic article I wrote on this topic in Childhood), which then subjects participation to regulation by the state, protecting children from overwork, physical injury, or other forms of exploitation.

Knowing there is precedent to regulate children's involvement in activities outside of the family home, what can practically be done? Given the role of the educational system we might think there is some role schools could play. However, many children who are overly involved in a particular activity-- be it chess, academic bees, performing, music, or sports-- are educated outside of the formal school system, as their families opt for homeschooling or special academies (like Spring Creek Academy in Texas or IMG Academies, which I have written about elsewhere).

The onus then falls on those who run afterschool programs. These teachers and coaches would be responsible for proving they are creating a safe environment and that they are certified to run their programs. Currently some small insurance companies that insure sports clubs, gyms, and dance studios fill the void created by the legal radio silence on this issue.

That most athletic coaches and teachers in extracurricular activities often have no formal educational credentials or certifications in their area is deeply problematic.  This remains a stumbling block in legitimating many afterschool activities and should be part of any comprehensive reform of the afterschool hours and how this time should be safely spent.  I will get on my blog soapbox about this particular issue-- which puts children and families at risk in a multitude of ways and hurts those teachers who are superb and dedicated to their students-- about this soon!