My oldest son, Virgil, is a klutz. He fell five times during a soccer game last autumn. And he didn’t just fall. He FELL with all the drama and legs akimbo he could muster. I suspected he was faking the spills, creating a distraction from the fact that if he got anywhere close to the ball, he'd fumble, missing the kick entirely. He’d done just that in the first few minutes of the game. He’d drawn his leg back, heel all the way to his butt. Way too big of a wind up, I thought. His leg came down as the other team swarmed. Panicked, Virgil swung and missed, the momentum from the pendulous leg carrying him from his feet to his back. While the other team scored, Virgil fled the field in befuddled humiliation. He disappeared into my arms, burying his head in my neck while I patted his back and dutifully whispered, “It’s okay honey.” At only seven, my son hasn’t experienced much in the way of humbling indignities. But with his lack of athletic prowess, he’ll need to get used to it. Or be really good at something else that doesn’t require any sort of physicality. That afternoon, his answer to ineptitude was duplicity. After that first debacle, he employed a strategy of dramatized, outrageous falls that allowed him to appear competent and committed. The team and coach gathered around after each plunge and helped him to his feet with a ‘you really went for it!’ pat on the back. I didn’t believe this lack of coordination cast as gumption.
As a parent I struggle with how useless he seems to be when it comes to athletic pursuits. And I struggle even more with the fact that it actually bothers me. In this feel-good parenting age of Everyone gets a medal! You’re all winners! I should be happy that he just participates. The contemplative and highly rational parent I aim to be knows that I am supposed to believe that just being out there is beneficial for his developing body and simply participating builds self-esteem. But I don’t believe any of that. “Stop fake falling you little faker and get out there and score!” That’s what goes through my head when Virgil adopts this approach of sweeping, emphatic tumbles rather than daring to play the game. His pratfalls effectively generate camaraderie but he doesn’t improve his skills. He doesn’t get any closer to winning. And the silent little league parent/over-zealous pageant mom that lurks inside of me wants to scream “Winning and competence matter! Get out there and try! Don’t you want to win?” These desperate and uncivilized thoughts fly in the face of the gentle encouragement I hear so many parents whisper. “All that matters is having fun, so just go out there and do the best you can.” I can’t bring that lie to my lips.
I was an athlete. And not just a run-of-the-mill high school varsity athlete. I was once the most elite gymnast in the United States, the 1986 National Gymnastics Champion. I competed alongside famous names, Olympic champions like Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller. When women discover that I was a gymnast, they often say, "So was I!" Their me-too exuberance prompts an ugly condescension in me. Ashamed, I try to conceal my smug antipathy with a smile and an oh-really nod. No you weren't, I think. You loved Nadia and begged your mom to sign you up for gymnastics classes. You went two days a week until you were in junior high. But then your body developed and boys noticed and hanging out at the mall or trying out for the cheerleading squad seemed a lot more appealing than spending the afternoon in a chalky, musty gym scared out of your wits to do what the coach was demanding. I started gymnastics when I was six. By the time I was seven, I was practicing twelve hours a week, traveling up and down the New Jersey Turnpike each weekend for competitions. I moved away from home when I was fourteen, trained forty hours a week while attending high school, endured untold abuses by over-enthusiastic coaches who weighed me twice a day to make sure I didn’t inadvertently get fat during my seven hour practice. I broke my femur at the 1985 World Championships when I fell from the uneven bars on my last event of the competition. Subsequently, the rules of international competition were changed, allowing coaches close by their athletes, an intervening spotter transforming potentially disastrous injuries into unfortunate half point deductions. I came back to win Nationals less than one year later. My parents ignored my depression and starvation, assuming I was happy because I won medals.
But now I am the parent. And it bugs me that my son can't make it to the end of a forty-minute soccer game without sliding into third base, that to conceal his lack of skill he just stops trying. I shouldn’t care. He’s bright, funny, sociable, kind. Yet I worry that he’s a dallier, that he won’t understand the value of hard work if he doesn’t work hard as a young person. Really hard. Like I did. It’s a lesson I feel obligated to teach him: You must toil to get what you want. The perfect marriage of aptitude and labor will breed success. Isn’t childhood the time for him to learn this? Or is this a lesson better learned later in life without his mother ramming it down his throat?
I detest parents who push their kids too hard, forbidding them their childhoods. I am also irked by parents who collaborate with their children to ensure every moment of their lives is filled with pleasantness. No losing, no conflict. Just awards for everyone who participates and ‘use your words’ encouragement in the face of blood curdling temper tantrums. In my desire to be a good parent, I wax and wane between these two pillars. I strive to be patient and ever empathetic in the face dubious behavior, to talk it out and remain calm. But I sometimes hurl a hefty dose of reality at my son, unleashing frustrated demands with rancor. “How many times do I have to tell you?! Do your homework! Clean your room! Turn off the television! Read a book! Stop doing that!!” I want to raise a well-adjusted kid who feels listened to and loved but is also prepared for life in this competitive world. So what's a neurotic, compulsive over-achiever who doesn’t want to inflict her own drama on her children to do? How am I supposed to raise my children?
That day on the soccer field, I began to understand how I might tackle this challenge. Seated on the sidelines, I experienced a moment of unadulterated love. He was wild-haired and insanely happy while he took a turn as goalie. He paid no attention to the action on the field but he savored the sunshine of San Francisco’s Indian summer. He turned away from the game to chat with a little girl on the team who was too fearful to assume her place in the lineup; he encouraged her to take his spot as goalie when there was a break in the action. His kindness and knobby knees were more than enough for me. In that moment, I resolved to worry less, enjoy him more, be in the moment and not fret so much about his future. I willfully ignored my nagging and unhealthy parental inclination to feel disappointment and frustration with his athletic incompetence. “Go Virgil!” I screamed as the ball flew past him. He waved at me when I called his name. All gappy-toothed grin, he still hadn’t noticed that the ball he failed to stop was inside the goal.
He was utterly enamored of simply participating, enjoying the day and the joys of having his family close by. When he finally noticed the ball resting at his feet, he cheerfully kicked it back to his teammates, triumphant that he’d finally made contact. With the ball in play down field, he once again urged his friend to take his place. Though she declined, his support brought a smile to her face as he returned to his post, albeit facing the wrong way. He was grinning and upright, generous and good-hearted; he was just plain old delighted to be alive.
I realized: if I pay attention, my second grader is going to teach me how to raise him.
© 2008 Jennifer Sey