Photo by Cdt 2005
I think Jason and I have been failing our kids.
Not entirely, of course. Our home has a lot of great things I think kids need, like piles of love and snuggles, and shelves upon shelves of books and games, and healthy, interesting food and conversation.
What we don’t have is what you might call a “sporting approach” to family fun.
We’re not that family—the one who’s always outside together playing catch and working on hand-eye coordination. We don’t have a basketball hoop affixed to the garage, like I did when I was growing up. We’re not the family biking to the park with a soccer ball and football—we’re the family biking to the park with a yummy picnic and some books and maybe a frisbee, which counts for something, but not for the topic in question.
I’m pretty much as far from a soccer mom as you can get.
Is love easy like coasting, or more focused, like steering?
To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it much. Our kids love art and music and creative play, and they also enjoy being outside—biking and hiking, gardening and camping. I’ve always made a point of not being the kind of parent who pushes their kids into doing something they don’t feel naturally compelled to do, just because “all the other kids are doing it.”
So we were just coasting along, encouraging our girls in the artsy things they naturally love. Then one day, I started to panic. The girls swim like fish, but when it comes to team sports, they’re at a loss. S, at eight, really doesn’t know how to throw or catch, let alone swing a bat to hit a ball, or dribble a basketball.
Will they be mocked and feel inadequate for the rest of their lives? I’ve never been the star, but I played tennis and softball growing up, and I can join in a game at a family reunion or church picnic without feeling humiliated. How had we let the girls do their thing for eight and ten years, without even attempting to really work with them on these skills, or encouraging them to try out a team sport?
It was our littlest daughter who woke me up to the fact that this issue was actually an Issue. One day, early last fall as she was starting third grade, she told me she wasn’t really good at anything. Anyone who knows this little eight-year-old actor/writer/scientist/artist would find this laughable, but I managed to swallow my laugh, as well as the maternal protest that rose to the surface.
When I asked some questions and listened a bit more, I quickly learned that her “I’m not good” perspective was rooted on the playground. Then I learned there was a lot of soccer playing and gymnastics practicing going on at recess, and S felt like she could only watch, not participate.
It was one of those delicate parenting moments. I wanted to reach for that magic child-rearing manual that unfortunately has never been published—you know, the one that comes with its own crystal ball? Instead, I was going to have to wing it, as usual.
True parental love is all about teamwork and balance
On one hand, all I ever really want for my kids is for them to feel great about exactly who they are. I long for them to get through life not comparing themselves to others, or comparing one type of talent, like art, to a more widely respected type, like being athletic.
But on the other hand, I have to be realistic. I know my kids will compare themselves to others. It’s part of being human—especially a part of being an adolescent human. I also realize that no amount of well-intended words coming out of my mouth (“you will always be more glad about learning to play the piano than learning to hit a ball,” or “I’m sure lots of kids are impressed by your writing abilities”) can convince my girls of what they simply need to believe and come to terms with on their own, inside themselves.
So I carefully walked the line. I told S that not being good at a sport was a perfectly valid way to go through life. That if she really, deep down, didn’t want to devote a lot of time and energy into learning gymnastics or soccer, she certainly didn’t have to. I told her a story about her artist dad who was made to participate on all the teams his older brother had, even though it made him miserable. I didn’t want her to experience that.
But then I also told her that if she really wanted to find a sport she liked, and work at it and be on a team, I knew she was fully capable. I gave her the “you can do anything you put your mind to” speech. I said that giving something like that a try was a good way to find out how she really felt about it, and I said Jason and I would commit to working with her and supporting her in her endeavor.
S thought it all through, then told me she really wanted to learn to play soccer. Jason started regularly taking her out into the yard and kicking the ball around. Then one day it occurred to me that one of our favorite babysitters has played college-level soccer, so we hired her to teach S some techniques once a week through the fall. I watched S blossom with this new skill and confidence. She came back from her lessons and played “coach,” teaching us what she was learning.
Taking a deep breath and trying something new
Today, S has her first soccer practice on a park district team. She’s been brimming with excitement since I signed her up two weeks ago, wearing her soccer jersey and shorts and shin guards around, and running outside to practice dribbling and kicking whenever she gets the chance.
A big part of me is still a bit worried and protective. What if she ends up feeling worse about herself through this experience—like she can’t keep up with everyone who’s been playing soccer since kindergarten? What if it’s really frustrating, and she wants to quit?
But a bigger part of me is really excited for her. Just to see her filled with so much anticipation and possibility is exciting. Even if soccer doesn’t end up being “her thing,” I know we’re going to learn a lot and have lots of great life-applicable conversations through it all. And I’ll get a taste of what this whole soccer mom thing is all about.