Kids’ Sporting Equipment:  Expenditure or Investment?

Parents want the kids to do well and will go to great extent to support them in their endeavors, and we’re no exception.  Follow their progress closely?  Check.  Provide emotional support and constructive criticism?  Check.  Go to as many of their events/games/practices as possible?  Check.  Participate in fundraisers?  Check.  Purchase all of the best equipment and gear?  Che…let’s wait a minute here.  Where is the line to be drawn on supporting the kids in a society in which the average family income is dropping steadily and food-stamp usage is rising?  Is there a dollar threshold on the status of good, supportive and loving parent?  Am I obligated to purchase the most expensive equipment?

This is a scenario with which I’ve wrestled for years as the three kids – Eldest, Middle and Youngest – have grown and found their way through the myriad of activities that come with multiple children.  Although they’ve been cumulatively involved with volleyball, soccer and basketball through the years, none of these have the equipment requirements of the single remaining sport of the PracticalDad clan – baseball.  The others have fallen by the wayside as the elder kids aged or found other significant outlets such as music…although that’s not cheap either.  The issue came clearly into focus last week when we realized that Youngest desperately needed a baseball bat.  Our habit with the kids as they grew was to outfit their needs at a secondhand sporting goods store whenever possible since they’d outgrow everything in a relatively short time.  This included Youngest’s first baseball bat, a 30" aluminum bat by DeMarini.  But after a recent game, a coach from the opposing team – in this league, he’s been coached by everybody through the years – stopped him to offer some comments on his stance and recommended a particular batting drill to help him learn to not open up when he swung the bat.  We dutifully went to the local school diamond and over the course of almost two hours, performed the drill again for almost two hundred at-bats; in the course of this, I watched him work at the plate and realized that given his size, the 30" bat didn’t allow him to fully cover the plate.  When we discussed it, he commented now I understand why I keep pulling strikes on the outside of the plate

So the boy needed a new bat and I kicked myself for not realizing that he’d need a new bat since the 30" bat was purchased when he was at least a half foot shorter.  Kids not only grow at different rates, but the same kid can grow unevenly so that feet and hands are disproportionate to the rest of the body.  I believe in serendipity; over the previous several weeks, I’d been privy to multiple conversations with fathers and coaches and the discussion turned to batting and by extension, bats.  The lessons from these conversations were:

  • A bat actually has a lifespan, regardless of whether it’s aluminum or wood, and it’s discernible via the sound of the ball being hit;
  • Bat size matters since the length and weight affect the swing of the batter, particularly regarding where he stands in the box and the speed with which he swings the bat – and it’s the speed at which the bat is swung that matters in the force with which a ball is hit;
  • A batter can do well with a particular bat but poorly with another since the more one bats, the more the bat becomes an extension of the batter, as though it were part of his own body;
  • What’s allowable for bat specifications changes from one level of play to another and how long you expect the kid to play at a particular level will help ascertain whether the bat should be bought new or used;
  • Just because a bat states that it’s Little-League Approved doesn’t mean that it is since the Little League’s list of allowable bats changes and what’s allowable one year can change to another.

The result was several hours of online reading on bat standards and guidelines on the suggested size for a boy’s height and weight with the realization that not only was his present bat too short by two inches, but he was growing at a rate that would move him even further, to a 33" bat.  We decided to go with a new bat and went to the only local sporting goods store that carried a reasonable variety of bats but this far into the season, the selection was picked through and there was only one 32" bat – and no 33" bats – available.  Youngest went to a deserted part of the store for multiple practice swings and when he brought the bat back, I looked at the pricetag and gasped oh crap! at the sticker.  What made the purchase digestible was the knowledge that the boy has at least another season at this level before moving onto the adult bats used at the next level so that the cost was spread over a longer period of time.

So what did I learn from the experience?

  1. Pay close attention to the child’s size and ask whether or not he or she needs to upsize the present equipment, not including the ubiquitous cleats.
  2. If there is a size upgrade, are there additional levels to the equipment by age and/or size and if so, how long can I expect the kid to be in that level?
  3. Is it a piece of equipment that makes a discernible difference in the child’s performance for the sport, or is one just like another so that they’re essentially all the same?

Youngest has already used the new bat although it’s too early to tell whether it’s going to make a difference.  He is the youngest player on his team although there’s only one teammate taller than him and his new bat is significantly larger than the rest of the team’s bats.  What was fascinating at the game was to watch his teammates use the bat instead of their smaller bats, swinging it in batting practice and taking it to the plate.  Perhaps that’s where I can make the cost of the bat more digestible, understanding that the investment in it will now be spread over a far greater number of plate appearances since this was clearly an investment instead of an expenditure.


Guns and Kids:  AirSoft

If I’m going to raise the kids to know how to use firearms – safely and properly – is there a place for the use of Airsoft toy guns?

For those who aren’t aware, Airsoft is the 21st century equivalent of the old Red Ryder BB gun, a high tech air-powered weapon that shoots plastic pellets and is popular in the newly-rushing testosterone set.  They come in multiple variants that resemble real weapons, albeit with bright red endpieces so that the average joe isn’t stunned by their presence, and shoot round plastic pellets that leave a nasty mark.  I’ve heard parents tell the kids that they shouldn’t be shooting at one another when they’re outside with them but that’s as effective as telling the family dog to shut up when another dog trots by.  The result is that the kids engage in mock warfare and it’s not uncommon for at least one of them to return with multiple welts from pellet impacts.  This honestly any different from when my generation played with BB guns and I can recall multiple instances of my friends and I blithely disregarding the parental warnings and playing war games.  But have times changed sufficiently so that it really is an issue?

My own sense – and the house rule – is that an Airsoft device won’t be purchased for the kids to use for two reasons.  The first is the simple issue of safety; when the kids know that they can play “safe” war games and still have the adrenaline rush of stinging the other guy, then they’ll likely use the Airsoft gun for human/animal target practice.  The second reason is that it blurs and lessens the sense of responsibility that should extend to guns and other weapons.  If a kid has access to, and use of, an Airsoft gun, then he’ll likely begin to think that he’s an expert in the use of real guns should he have access to them.  When my wife and I had the opportunity to speak with a pistol instructor – a former Marine sergeant and Blackwater contractor – this was his sense as well.  In his world, a gun is something that deserves the utmost respect for it’s capacity to kill, even if it’s owned for reasons of personal defense or even hobby.  There are safety rules that must be strictly followed because any lapse in their usage can result in a potentially fatal accident and in his view, kids who are used to the forgiving nature of Airsoft are likely to treat the real gun with a lessened respect that increases the possibility of incident.  Gun ownership requires a higher order of responsibility and discipline for the recognition of the destructive capacity of the gun, as well as an inherent understanding that no one is invulnerable and all are subject to injury and in the worst case, death.  But the simple reality is that most children and teens have no experience with death and believe themselves to be invulnerable and the notion that their actions could go awry hasn’t occurred to them.

The upshot – if you’ll pardon the pun – is that we’ve opted to forego Airsoft guns.  We will make sure that the kids learn how to handle guns properly and with strict supervision, but anything that blurs the line of adherence to the safe handling of firearms will be disallowed in the household.  If there’s an Airsoft gun to be used, it will have to be used elsewhere.

PracticalDad Price Index:  May 2013 Largely Unchanged

The 47 item PracticalDad grocery marketbasket was surveyed at the three separate grocery stores for May and the results show only a slight increase from April’s results. With major central banks – the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank – going all out to push for inflation, there’s little to show since the indices dropped from their December 2012 highs; indeed, they are slowly crawling up from February 2013 and the wait for inflation increasingly resembles a scene out of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

Month          Total Index          Food-Only          Spread

2/13             107.81                113.59                 5.78

3/13             107.24                113.35                 6.11

4/13             107.29                113.46                 6.17

5/13             107.64                113.68                 6.04


Corroborating Food Stamp Usage:  The Chicken Factor

While questions continue about whether monetary policies will spur inflation that affects families, other news pertains to the new levels of food stamp usage as more Americans are forced to turn to government assistance for food purchases.  But there’s also been an uptick in stories about food stamp fraud.  Whether the cause is due to a disbelief that such numbers could truly be that bad or – in one of my more cynical moments – the notion that the the stage is being set for placing limits on further food stamp aid by framing the program as fraud-riddled, the fraud stories are occurring.  Since it’s sometimes difficult to know who to believe, it’s helpful to find a separate data point to corroborate the facts, one way or another.  In my own case, I’ve come to notice that there are suburban, seemingly middle-class families who are now raising chickens in the backyard for food; I’ve come to refer to this as The Chicken Factor. 

Through years of media exposure, the image of a family with chickens is one of a ramshackle rural home in the midst of nowhere, one or more paint-peeling shutters slightly askew.  The family can charitably be called redneck or hillbilly, dressed in unkempt clothing.  But what I’m starting to see, and it’s still only three instances, is a comfortable middle-class style home with fenced pens to accommodate chickens.  Each home also has a significantly sized garden in which to grow food that’s being used for the family’s consumption.  I first became aware of it about two years ago when a family that I knew had Youngest over to play and when I entered the backyard, found a well-tended garden and chickens running loose out of their pen.  This can considered an isolated instance but for the past three months.  The first additional evidence was during a trip to Lowes when I stopped by the how-to book section and found a stylish, glossy book on how to raise chickens.  The second additional evidence is that I’ve noticed two other houses with both vegetable gardens and small chicken coops and pens.  One is also in a circa-1960s middle-class neighborhood and the other is a neat, older home in a more rural setting; regardless however, the incongruity of it is jarring

One of the suburban homes sits on a street corner so that, sans-fencing, the work being done is open for all to see and it’s frankly impressive for the work that’s being put into it.  The house had become slightly unkempt as it sat for sale for months on end, the yard cluttered with branch debris from the older trees that clustered the driveway and lot boundaries.  Then the sign disappeared and a remodeling contractor’s pickup truck appeared in the driveway and as it remained there through the various days that I drove past, it became apparent that it belonged to the new owner and not just a contractor.  What the family has done to the house is akin to a suburban, 21st century version of Little House in the Suburb as the debris has been cleared and the majority of the trees felled and stumps removed, the trees cut up into firewood and neatly stacked into cords for next winter’s consumption.  An inexpensive playset – not one of the costly monstrosities – belies the fact there are small children and while the yard has been restored, there is now a large garden plot and…a fenced-in henhouse. So while I can’t speak for the third house, I can attest that the two suburban homes belong to young families with small children. 

With the onset of the recession after the Financial Crisis of 2008, community and church ministry gardens began to spring up to provide fresh vegetables for stretched food banks.  This could at first be seen as a stop-gap measure until things improved; I recall that my hometown allocated community garden space for citizens during the problematic 1970s but with the recovery in the 1980s, this land was converted to park space and is now heavily landscaped and unusable in any practicable sense for food production.  But these church/community gardens are now continuing and the demand from the food banks continues unabated.  I know of two such garden programs – in separate parts of the country – that are cumulatively providing tons of fresh produce for the food banks each season and they are expanding. 

The upshot of these datapoints is this.  As family incomes drop, by approximately 7% since the start of the Obama administration, the food supply issues reveal that what our young families are facing isn’t a bump-in-the-road that can be waited out but instead a much poorer road.  Homeownership rates might have dropped to 15 year lows but the young families are reverting back even further than that to practices not seen since the times of their great-grandparents.  The gardens might be a decent hobby or something nostalgic reminiscent of the World War Two Victory gardens, but combining the ongoing community/church gardens with chickens strongly indicates that the families are resetting to a far different set of expectations than with which they were raised. 

What I find unsettling is that two of the three henhouse/garden scenarios occur on properties from which the backyard is openly visible from the road.  What’s going on amongst the many houses with fenced yards or properties obscured otherwise?  Should there be substantive discussion about controls on the food stamp program, my recommendation would be that the government google recent satellite photos to ascertain what’s occurring in the yards that we can’t see from the street.