I’d put it to him at dinner one night. There he sat, my blue-eyed, sandy-haired kid with the freckles on his nose and a corn cob in his hand. With great waffling and indecision, he’d waited until the eleventh hour and the fifty-ninth minute before pulling the trigger, throwing the lever.
“Just so you know,” I said, peering at him. “I’m a yeller.” To my right, something between a cough and a gargle issued from his father who, too, hammered down on the corn.
For a girl who was riveted, spellbound by baton twirlers, cheerleaders and gymnasts, it came natural. My friends and I would turn cartwheels, learning chants, and I’d practice with my silver baton in the yard. Which is as far as any of it went, really. Until the Schrocklets arrived, and that pom-pom girl came back.
The night before his first meet, we gathered once more at the table. With the hours of practices recently, his just-discovered running legs had suddenly gone hollow. Food was disappearing at an alarming rate, and like a Hummer that never passed a gas station, his legs weren’t passing any dinners.
Thoughtful parent that I am, I wanted to prepare him for my helpful bellows and shouted exhortations. And so I said, “Does Coach give a trophy at the end of the season for the Yellingest Mom? ‘Cause I’m going for that.” He shrugged stolidly, looking, I thought, a bit pale. “Just so you know,” I said again.
Having kids in sports does funny things to folks. It’s one thing to watch professional athletics or an Olympic event—pretty much anything that your children aren’t in. But it’s a whole other thing if it’s your child on the field, running the course, rushing the net. All at once, it’s personal.
Something rises up in a parent. Some primal urge; a fierce, protective instinct that seeks to guard, to defend. And with that, we want our children to win. This is intrinsic to a parent’s heart and nature. It’s not learned or practiced or taught. It just is, and nothing brings it out like seeing them compete.
As with nearly everything in life, there are two ditches here. The first one is being a fearful, overprotective, or critical parent. This kind squelches initiative and cripples a child by robbing him or her of opportunities to build confidence. A fearful parent will make a fearful child, and fear always binds, steals and stunts.
The critical parent does a tremendous amount of damage, too. If a child hears a steady flow of, “You can’t,” or, “You’re stupid,” or, “You sure messed that up,” then trying new things is too risky. It’s safer to retreat and hide.
The other ditch is the parent whose child must always win. Always succeed. Must be the champion, the star, the cream of the crop, and anything less is not accepted. These are the parents who shout insults and epithets at an ump or a ref over any perceived injustice. Yes, it can start in Little League.
This does a couple of things. First, a child learns that perfection is the standard. The thought of failure is a fearsome thing, and so performance becomes the focus. Secondly, a child can develop a sense of entitlement and arrogance. “I’m the best, I deserve to be the best, and you’d better get out of my way.” What heartache awaits either one of these down the road.
Perhaps the key, then, is to follow the advice our pastor frequently gives: “Stay out of the ditches.” Keep it between the lines. Aim for the middle.
Of course, we don’t want our children to lose. There’s no virtue in losing for losing’s sake alone. A loser’s mindset equates to a victim one, and Lord knows what damage that’s done to countless people and to the country at large. We don’t want our kids to lose, and yet.
And yet, there are lessons to be learned in the losing that a kid simply must be allowed to learn. For one thing, even if he or she dominates in high school, excelling in every arena, somewhere there will be a defeat. A tough college course; a tough job market; a tough, unreasonable boss, and bam. A loss.
In losing, a child discovers how to learn from mistakes. How to swallow pride and acknowledge the one who was better. He learns (she learns) that losing a match isn’t the end of all things; that when you gather your courage and try it again, you’re a winner anyway.
My desire as a mother is that my four sons succeed, that they win at life. To do that, I know they will need just enough defeats to keep them humble, to keep them grounded. To keep them leaning, not on their own strength, but on the Lord’s.
If your kid is racing my kid on a cross-country course this fall, you will hear me. I want my kid to beat yours. If he doesn’t, that’s okay. We’ll be at the next meet, trying it again.