The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 29, 2010


Author George Scarlett loves kids, coaching and Carlisle

Author George Scarlett. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

If you happen to be biking or walking in Great Brook one weekday morning, don’t be alarmed if you see a distinguished looking gentleman sitting in his car, writing longhand, (that’s no laptop) while listening to Bach and eating his breakfast from a tinfoil wrapper. If there is an aging border collie patrolling the backseat, you’ll know the writer is George Scarlett, prolific author, longtime Carlisle resident, baseball lover, husband, father and professor and deputy chair, at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University.

Scarlett is the author of several books and articles on children’s play, religious and spiritual development, approaches to managing children’s problem behavior and organized youth sports. He says he knew at age 13 that he wanted to be a child psychologist, and by age 16 he was working with troubled youth on the weekends. “I always knew I wanted to work with kids.” He holds three degrees, including a Ph.D. from Clark University in Developmental Psychology, a masters degree in Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and a B.A. in Psychology from Yale University.

But don’t let the impressive pedigree fool you. Scarlett is a down-to-earth, funny, warm, baseball-loving guy. He greets you with turkey sandwiches and apple pie. He cares deeply about children, as evidenced by his scholarly work (we’ll get to that), but he might care even more deeply about baseball. “I fell in love with baseball at the age of nine,” he says. He grew up listening to the Baltimore Orioles games on the radio, and played through high school (shortstop, until someone noticed his bad throw and put him in the outfield). He feels strongly that the point of teaching baseball to kids should be to instill a love of the game. a love of the game – not winning – although winning is nice. “If kids don’t develop a love of the game, they’re less likely to want to improve their skills,” he says. You want to have fun and, Scarlett agrees, “It’s no fun if you stink.”

Scarlett’s most recent book is The Baseball Starter, A Handbook for Coaching Children and Teens, which he co-wrote with three members of the Tufts University varsity baseball team (also known in some circles as The Hunks), Gregory Chertok, Jacob L. Lipton and Erik S. Johanson. Although he frequently collaborates with professional colleagues, Scarlett prefers working with students. “They have stuff I don’t have, and sometimes it’s just energy. When you’re writing for publication, they break out of the student role. The experience is something they don’t see in their courses. And I get to be the radical editor,” he adds.

The book is a tool for teaching baseball to kids, with a focus on mechanics of hitting, fielding and pitching, as well as management (of practices and games) and the “additional essentials” of character and team culture. Excellent photos, short bullet points and “tip” lists make the book clear and concise, a great tool for the parent with dreams of Little League leadership. One of the main reasons Scarlett wrote the book may surprise some parents: just because you played baseball, doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it. Think you’re a good coach? Can you teach?

“How do you teach a complex motor skill to a child? That was very interesting to me,” he explains. When you explain how to hold the bat correctly, for example, your choice of metaphor should be different for a seven-year-old than for a 15-year-old. (Wrap your fingers around the bat and line up the “door knocking knuckles.” Then turn the top hand slightly to the left (for righties) or the right (for lefties) so that the door knocking knuckles don’t line up with the other knuckles.)

“If you want to be a good teacher, you actually have to know how to hit and throw,” he points out. Seems obvious, and yet so many Little League coaches make the assumption that, because they played, or because they were good, they should coach. Instead, Scarlett proposes, why not first learn how to teach?

And coaching, it turns out, is more than yelling commands. “And you can’t just write a book about baseball because you coached,” he adds. “This book was a lot of research; I read a lot of books; I watched videos,” he says. A former Little League coach himself, Scarlett says, “This book is for a guy like me. I wish I’d known then (when I was coaching) what I know now.”

Scarlett laments the tendency in many communities today to focus too heavily on achievement, both on the field and in other areas of a child’s upbringing. “You have to be careful,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but when you put achievement on top of the list, it has a different meaning. Achievement without care can turn ugly.”

Scarlett says he is most proud of his book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management: Integrating Discipline and Care, but that the book on play (Children’s Play) is the most fun. The play book, while a textbook for teachers and students of child development, is written in a friendly, accessible style that parents can appreciate and enjoy while learning. Children’s play, Scarlett argues, is “beautiful and complex.”

He had the benefit of watching his own children demonstrate. Did his two sons prove or disprove any existing child development theories? Not really, but Scarlett does explain that watching his children develop and play through each stage was “even more exciting when you have the language to describe what you’re seeing.” For example, at age 3 ½ his younger son developed a passion for early American wars, and in particular became quite taken with the battle of the Old North Bridge. There is a term called War Play, given extensive treatment in the play book. The entire Scarlett family soon became expert historians on this battle – on the soldiers’ names, their clothing, every conceivable detail. Scarlett read The Lord of the Rings to his older son, rushing home from work each night before bedtime to get a few pages in. “We entered that fantasy world together,” he remembers. Not to be outdone, the younger son, aged 12 at the time, promptly wrote a sequel to Tolkien’s epic, called, “Men of the West.” “It was pretty good, too,” Scarlett remembers, laughing.

According to Scarlett, the important question to ask, regarding a child’s play or behavior, whether on the baseball field, at home or in the classroom, is, what are the relationships of the child? “It all boils down to the quality of relationships in a child’s life,” he says. Two signs that a child wants to build a relationship with you (parents of pre-schoolers will recognize these): 1) Hey, look at me! 2) Can you help me? This is a child communicating that they want to build a relationship. “Good things come from good relationships,” Scarlett argues.

A true academic, Scarlett is reluctant to comment on child rearing or behavior trends without appropriate data. However, he will offer his opinion as a parent and citizen. He admits seeing both the loss of unstructured play and “helicopter parenting” as two trends that have accelerated. Whether due to new dangers to children, both real and perceived, the change in how we consume media, or the way communities have evolved and developed, it’s not like it used to be. “In the 1950s we walked a mile home from playing, and I hitchhiked,” he says. And yet, Scarlett feels, the amount of managing and anxiety that parents display when it comes to their children and schedules – “It’s disrespectful to kids.” Are the kids turning out differently? Scarlett offers a sly smile. “Their spirits are too strong. They’ll find ways to maintain control.”

Why he loves Carlisle. George and his wife, Shirley, moved from Cambridge (they lived in the house built by Henry Longfellow for his eldest daughter) in 1986, when their oldest son was still a baby. “The people and the values in Carlisle are terrific,” Scarlett says. What else? “Carlisle to me, means critters. The natural world is important to me,” he admits. “I love the woods, and I like to walk. I’m in the woods a lot,” he laughs.

What’s next for George Scarlett? He’s currently researching a book on methods of parenting that parents themselves invent. This will be his first solo project. He’s also working on a book about “Spiritual Exemplars” – great people who are big spiritual figures, from Mother Teresa to Buddha. He is particularly interested in the idea of belief vs. faith: “Faith, more than belief, is the proper starting point for a discussion about religion and spirituality.” Lately, he’s also become deeply intrigued with exploring the role of creative non-fiction writing. Finally, he’s committed to supporting the work of Childlife Council, an organization focused on helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events, for example, making the hospital experience easier for children.

And if it’s the weekend – George Scarlett may not be at Great Brook. Check the Cranberry Bog. He’ll be the one writing. ∆

Co-authors (left to right) Greg Chertok, Erik Johanson, Jake Lipton and George
Scarlett. (Photo by Melody Ko)

© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito