undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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Don’t Be Like Me, Son

geeksSoccer season is wrapping up for my son, which is a bitter-sweet conclusion to the Fall. With the end of the season, my wife and I get to reclaim our Monday nights, Friday nights, and Saturday mornings, but my son is left without his team and his new favorite sport. I will truly miss seeing my son out there are on the field. His gusto, resilience, and comradery remind me of all the ways he’s not like me, which is a good thing.

As a kid, I was super anxious. I was the good, quiet kid in the back of the class who kept his head down and did his work. I was the kid who was respectful around adults and shy with peers. I was also the kid who was terrified of group sports, because I was awkward, uncoordinated, and un-athletic. During PE or recess, I would shy away from group games and sports for fear that I would mess up and evoke the jeers and disappointment of kids in my class. To combat this scenario, I’d do two things: I’d stay away from competitive games and sports as much as possible, and I’d become self-deprecating among my peers.

When captains were picking teams among a huddle of elementary school boys, I’f be the first to say, “Uh oh, I hope you don’t get me on your team!” or “Okay, I’ll just move to the back so you get a better view of the good players.” or (when I was one of the last few kids) “Looks like you’re down to the worst of the worst.” Basically, I was a 10-year-old Richard Lewis.

In this way, I beat the other kids to the punch, protecting myself from insults because no one insulted me as well as I did. But I also self-segregated myself from other kids. I distinguished myself as the kid no one wanted on his team, and so I never really tried. If I was bad, then why fight against it? So I never tried my hardest. I never fought past the awkwardness to gain any skill.

Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and so my son is like me in many ways. He struggles with coordination and rhythm. He can’t quite move his body as fluidly and nimbly as some other kids his age. He’s also quite shy. He’s very quiet around adults and is slow to meet friends. When I see these traits in him, I feel badly, because he has inherited traits from me that hindered me as a kid. So when I see him shying away from social interactions, or struggling with sports, I feel sorry for him, and wish I hadn’t yoked him with these weighty obstacles.

I think many parents struggle with the challenging traits they see in their kids, especially those the recognize (consciously or unconsciously) as arising from their own genes. They trigger in us all the memories of how we suffered as kids or they ways in which we were hindered or held back because of who we were. Parents want the best for their kids, and so this realization of a parents’ less-optimal traits are sometimes a guiding force for how we attempt to shape our children.

For me, I always push my son to interact with others and have a voice in the world. I prod him to go up and ask adults questions, like librarians, waitresses, or cashiers. I coach him about how to respond to adults if they ask him questions, so he isn’t a nodding mute when confronted with an adult inquiry. I encourage him to make friends or approach other kids. I know I do these things because I was a shy kid who never took social risks and never had much of a voice. I don’t want my son to grow up like that, because I experienced it as so limiting.

Sports were different though. I never pushed him to do them, because I was always terrified of them. For myself, I felt as though they’d be a set-up for ridicule because of my awkwardness. I think that in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, I de-emphasize sports with my son, because I see myself in him, and want to protect him from any rejection.

But my son is not me. When soccer season came around, I was astounded that he wanted to try. He was (perhaps luckily) put on a team that my wife and I dubbed the Bad News Bears, because they were a troop of rag-tag kids on a loosing streak. Their abilities ranged from not-so-good to okay, and so there were very few superstars on the team. I was thankful because I didn’t want any cocky athletic kids making fun of my son.

My son was off to a rough start. He fumbled around with the ball at his feet and shied away from the action. When the kids charged for the ball, he would defer to his teammates and take a supportive role, never taking the lead. When he did get the ball, he’d quickly give it up or pass it to someone else. When I projected my 8-year-old self into his shoes, I knew I’d do the same, but I’d take it to a different level. I would have given up. I would have complained to my parents that I didn’t want to go, or I would completely opt out of receiving the ball for fear of how badly I’d do.

But not my son. Throughout the season, he stuck to it. He practiced and practiced. He gave his all during formal practices, only to go home and ask me to kick the ball around with him. He loved goal keeping and would ask me to shoot balls his way while he defended them from hitting our fence. As games progressed, he’d get gutsier and charge in with the other kids. He scored one of the team’s few goals during the season! He started asking the coach if he could be goalie, and even asked his mom and me to buy him goalie gloves. By the end of the season, he looked like a different player, still with a lot to learn, but a kid who wasn’t afraid to get in there, make mistakes, and push through the struggles.

A childless male friend recently asked me what’s the best part of being a parent. With this soccer season fresh in my mind, I responded that it’s seeing your child surprise you. It’s seeing aspects of you in your child, but realizing that in spite of being an amalgam of you and your partner’s genes, your child is a unique human being who can always surprise you.

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Dear Soccer Dad, Do you want your son to hate you?

kicking-and-screaming“Isaiah, move up! Move up!”

“Isaiah, what kind of a kick was that?”

“Isaiah, why you giving up, bud?”

These shouts ring from the sidelines a few feet away from me on a brisk October Saturday morning. I’m there to watch my son in the town’s U9 soccer league, and I’m loving being a newly christened soccer dad. There’s something great about having a new home team and it being your son’s. But what’s up with this dude down the line?

There are all sorts of soccer dad’s, as I’m beginning to learn. Surprisingly, the most popular version is the absent soccer dad, judging by the lack of men on the sidelines (but that’s fodder for another post). There are also the quiet watchers, the cheerers and, apparently, the beraters. I’m surprised to learn that I’m a cheerer, and a very vocal one. Like, verging-on-annoying-cheerer.

As a kid, I was always a quiet sports spectator. Sure, I would cheer and clap when a point was made or a ball was saved, but I never shouted words of encouragement or cheered for specific players. I was somewhat sports illiterate growing up, and so I think the prospect of shouting encouragement or advice felt overzealous or even hypocritical.

But now I see these 8-year-olds running their hearts out on the field and I want them to know we’re cheering for them. Although I’m historically bad about remembering kids names, I’ve been pretty good at learning most of the team members’ first name at this point in the season. I shout words of encouragement for each of them as they receive the ball, I praise their defense and passing, and I cheer when a ball is saved and (less frequently…we’re on a losing streak) when a goal is scored. Each time, I try to call the player by name.

I explain all this to convey that I understand this desire to be vocal on the sidelines. I’m not there to be a passive observer, but Isaiah’s dad takes active support to a new level, by becoming coach, ref, judge, and asshole. He’s the guy who’s there before every practice, running the ball with his son and giving him lots of pointers. He sits through practice and yells advice, peppered with lots of frustrated commentary. Game days are by far the worst. He shouts to his kid about where to be on the field (even when counter to the coach’s strategy). He yells at him to move faster or stop giving up. He berates him for slowing down, giving up the ball, or allowing a pass.

It’s hard sitting on the sidelines near this guy, hearing all this. My imaginary monologue to him goes something like this:

“Do you want your son to grow up hating you? Because that’s what you’re doing. Only two things can come out of this. Either he grows up hating and rejecting his dad who always gave him a hard time, or he grows up always trying to please you, while at the same time feeling like he’s never good enough. In the second scenario, he’s likely to treat his own kids to a life of insults because it’s his only model for how to be engaged as a dad. Pull back a bit dude. It’s great that you’re here, but let the coach coach, and chill out a bit.”

I can’t, however, imagine a scenario in which I have the balls big enough to confront this guy with my diatribe. But these same sentiments run though my mind each time I hear him. I don’t see anyone else (aside from my wife) holding the discomfort of hearing this guy’s comments, but I can’t imagine other parents find it unproblematic. Plus, the coach is always on the opposite side of the field from the spectators, and so a lot of it happens off the coach’s radar. Perhaps the most skilled and emotionally cognizant coach would be able to finesse a conversation with all parents about etiquette and the proper show of support.

But what do I do? As the season goes along and I become more invested in my son’s team and its players, what do I do with my discomfort and pity for this kid who’s given such a hard time by his dad. For now, when I see him set up his chair on the sidelines, I’ll set up mine a few dozen feet away. I’ll focus on the game and try to drown out his words, but that poor kid will hear them for the rest of his life.