We knew by the way he sacked the basemen as he ran around the tee-ball diamond that football was the sport for our fourth son. That was when he was five years old. Now, at age eight, he weighs 100lbs, is tall enough to look his mother in the eye, and is finally old enough to play for our town’s Atom Chargers football team.
One month into the season, he looks great on the field – shoving and sauntering. But it hasn’t always been that way. The first two practices were disasters. He ignored the coaches, walked while everyone ran, and eventually wound up standing with his helmet pressed against the goal post in a self-imposed timeout.
With half an hour left in the second practice, I stood up from the stands and headed onto the field. “You’re not going to want to make a habit out of that,” my friend, a seasoned football dad warned me. He’s right. But watching my kid bouncing his own head off the goal post over and over again was more painful than storming onto the field as “that parent.”
I got to the goal post, took my boy by the arm, and said, “You have exactly one more chance to do what the coaches say or you are grounded from the computer and all the video games.”
So began his football career. He’s still the slowest guy on the team but he’s playing a position where his job is to get in the way and knock people over. He’s a natural. Wherever he is at this very moment, he’s probably getting in the way and knocking things over right now. He will never touch the ball during a game. For a kid like mine, playing on the line, football is more a martial art than a ball-game. And I am shocked at how much I – a former high school football sneer-leader – am enjoying watching my son playing sports.
Yes, it’s taken me four sons to finally have one involved in team sports. Before him, I didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of how kids behave in organized sports. Along with that ignorance, I didn’t have any experience with how parents behave while watching kids play sports. I’d heard horror stories about parents cursing at coaches, threatening referees, yelling at kids, running out onto the ice or the field, embarrassing and upsetting everyone. It seemed like craziness. I didn’t disbelieve those stories. But I didn’t understand the complexities of them either.
Not every parent meddling in his or her kid’s game is out there abusing coaches and trying to bully kids into far-fetched pro-sports careers. Some of them are just trying to get their kids to do flaming anything. When my son zoned out in the end zone, I could have got all tender, sighed something about how he wasn’t interested in football after all, unlaced his brand new cleats, and taken him home to our soft couches and lovely, glowing screens.
The fact is if my kids had it their way, they wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t easy for them. They’d be charming writers, artists, and readers but they wouldn’t know how to swim or ride bicycles or speak French or do any number of other things that make them happy now that they’ve mastered them. Young kids – like my linesman — don’t know anything about work or rewards or regrets or how everything in life but real love comes with an expiration date looming over it. When my kid acted like he wanted to quit football, he wasn’t thinking about the day disillusioned adult-him might come brimming with blame, asking why I didn’t push him hard enough to make a difference when he was still a kid. He’s not thinking of old-lady-me trying to justify to my daughter-in-law all the times I failed to kick his butt, leaving her to do it. (I, on the other hand, am constantly thinking about my daughters-in-law. I want those harpies happy.)
Someone owes it to kids to give them chances to learn new things – hard things. For some parents, giving a kid a chance means writing a check, dropping him off at the sports field, and watching the magic happen. For slow-to-warm-up kids like mine, giving them a chance often means riding them until they figure out what’s important for themselves. And for other parents, like the guy I saw calmly carrying his screaming son off the field after the kid ripped off his cleats and threw them at his dad’s head, it means knowing when certain horizons are already as broad as they’re going to get and moving on to different ones.
So to all those parents of the eager, easygoing kids, don’t take those kids’ good attitudes for granted. Thank them for it. And take it easy on all of us “that parents” out on the field mixing it up with our more difficult kids. We’ll try to go easier on ourselves too. If it helps, let’s think of our different parenting-styles as CFL versus NFL football. To people who don’t know much about it, the games look the same — but they’re not.
Oh, and go Chargers!