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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on USYouthSoccer.org every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 

 

Taking It on the Chin

Susan Boyd

Good Grief! The Brewers can’t put a win together and have now fallen to second place in the NL Central Division. My grandson’s high school varsity football team lost badly last Friday night. Then he played Saturday morning on his freshman team and suffered a 47-21 loss. Manchester United seems to be continuing last year’s lackluster effort in the new English Premier League season. But none of this compares to some of the worst (best?) losing records in history. The 2003 Detroit Tigers lost 118 out of 162 games. In the 1972-73 season, the Philadelphia 76ers endured 73 losses out of 82 games. From 1992 to 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates notched 17 consecutive losing seasons. On Jan. 13, 2007, the California Institute of Technology’s basketball team beat Bard College 81-52, a resounding victory made even sweeter because it snapped a 207 game losing streak that dated back to 1996. I’ve written about winning the last two weeks, however most of us find our kids on teams that toggle between wins and losses. So we really understand the lows nearly as much as we do the highs.

Accepting that losses happen isn’t the same thing as handling them gracefully. I actually think we remember the details of the losses better than the details of a win. We have to rationalize how our team managed to come up short, so we concentrate on the bad calls, the unfair play, the unlucky bounces, and the tough competition. The “if only’s” become the foundation of any post-game conversation. Losses can also send us into a tailspin of funk where we focus so much on the outcome that we forget any semblance of enjoyment. The younger players generally bounce back from a loss, especially if an after-game snack is available. They have more of an immediate investment in any moment getting attracted by whatever shiny object appears in their frame of reference. We parents tend to dwell on losses trying to make sense of them, and certainly dejection looms large when losses come in a string. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum having lived with a spectacular run of wins and a depressing slew of losses, so I’ve seen the reactions. We parents generally fall into one of four groups, each of which helps us address our disappointments and frustrations.

The first group is what I call the Eeyores, those parents who can’t see anything but the dark clouds on the horizon. Eeyore’s gloomy ruminations are famous in Winnie the Pooh stories.  His idea of optimism is that the worst hasn’t happened yet.  “It’s snowing still…and freezing…However we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”  Parents in this group see a loss as just a precursor to worse outcomes.  “This was an easy team, and we lost.  Think what will happen next week when we meet the league champion.”  “We were lucky to avoid major injuries, but they’re inevitable given how weak the team is.” Even the coach of Cal Tech after the losing streak ended exhibited his Eeyore. He gave into his opinion that despite the win, the future was still bleak, and in the post-game speech went with “Everyone outmatches us in size, speed and athletic ability.  Everyone.” That’s classic Eeyore – embrace the worst.

The second group is “The Defiant Ones.” Unable to accept a loss, these parents insist the team was robbed. “We only lost because the referees were lousy.” “The long grass slowed our game down.” “The other team played dirty.” Rather than figure out what could be improved, these parents argue that the damage was externally visited upon the team. They play the “if only” game better than anyone. If only the refs had been fairer, if only the weather hadn’t delayed the game, if only there hadn’t been mud puddles in front of the goal, and on and on and on, never dealing with the realities. Defiant Ones don’t just rationalize, they out and out argue that the result was based on unfair conditions. The Brewers have been on a losing skid not capitalizing on players in scoring position, fielding badly, and exhibiting lackluster pitching. So I was a bit surprised when the manager, Ron Roenicke, blamed the home plate umpire for the Brewer’s loss to San Diego.  He argued that the umpire, “terrible behind home-plate,” forced the Brewer closer to give up a home run that tied the game in the 9th. San Diego ultimately won. Roenicke complained that the umpire called balls on two pitches which were clearly strikes, compelling his closer to “have to pitch” to the batter. I’m not convinced anyone other than the pitcher was for letting loose a fat one. Of course, had he walked the batter, it might have been less risky than what happened. The pitch was the responsibility of the closer, the catcher, and the manager, not the umpire.  Still, Roenicke’s interview after the game showed that his defiance was in full bloom. He laid the blame for the loss clearly on the shoulders of the umpire.

Down three goals with 20 seconds left, the third group, “The Cheerleaders,” are at their finest. No matter how insurmountable the odds, the cheerleaders keep urging the team onward. They handle losses by hoping for a miracle and encouraging the team to do the same. These are the parents who keep up the positive banter on the sidelines clear to the bitter end. When the kids come off the field, no matter how badly they played, the parents tell them it’s okay and they did great. Rather than let anyone point out what might be adjusted to create a better outcome next time, these parents are content to stick with the status quo, put the best face on it and keep the kids happy. In their world, bringing up improvements implies someone failed so we just need to clap and believe in fairies. Although negative criticism isn’t beneficial, not providing any criticism is equally unproductive. Cheerleaders concentrate so much on making kids feel good, that the kids can’t have honest disappointment. It’s difficult to improve if a team is constantly told that inadequate play is supportable without modification. 

An offshoot of The Cheerleaders and the opposite of The Eeyores are “The Pollyannas.” It’s not so much that they constantly tout everything as wonderful like Cheerleaders, but that they pick one positive aspect and use it to overshadow everything bad no matter how much more honest the bad is compared to the good. Their excessive optimism refuses to accept the facts of an unfortunate situation. In the book, Pollyanna is famous for playing the “Glad Game,” opting to find something to be happy about no matter how dire the situation. Pollyannas are nearly as fatalistic in their positivity as the Eeyores are in their negativity. They sugarcoat losses to the point that you can’t even recognize them as shortfalls for the team. When the team loses, the loss is pushed aside in favor of some sliver of good news. I call them the “at least” crowd. At least the uniforms looked good. At least the rain held off. At least there were bleachers. No matter how trivial the point, these parents opt for a weak silver lining. It’s a sunny outlook but it also ironically clouds the work a team needs to do to create a win. Pollyannas don’t give kids a chance to mourn a loss or talk about it because they are too busy touting some inconsequential piece of the game that went well. 

Aspects of each of these groups can be useful and even welcomed when a team experiences a devastating loss or a string of losses. Being honest about faults like Eeyore helps kids look at a game without minimizing inadequate play. Giving kids a chance to vent with defiance at how unfair some of the game actually was, allows them to distance themselves from the lousy outcome until they are ready to talk about it. Cheering them on, despite the futility of hope, shows kids that we support them no matter what. Finding the good in any disappointment allows kids to take something positive from the experience. The danger comes when we focus too much on any of these types, giving into the group behavior as a way to avoid dealing with a loss and learning from it. Some losses do roll off the backs easily. Losses can shape the character of our players by teaching them how to deal with defeats and to grow from them. 

Last Friday night two Texas high schools, Greenville and North Garland, competed against one another, neither of which had won a game last season. Greenville actually has a 40-game losing streak, one of the longest in Texas history, meaning that many seniors could graduate from the school without ever enjoying a win. No parent would ever wish that experience on their child in the name of forming character. We don’t need to be completely beat down to appreciate a win from a loss. I’m sure those kids will welcome some Cheerleaders and Pollyannas on their sidelines and around the dinner table. Losses should be a learning experience (as well as wins), yet we can help mitigate the sting a bit without muddying the waters too much. By the way, Greenville finally broke its 40-game losing streak with a 24-21 win over North Garland. So deal with that, Eeyore.

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Dramatic Effect

Susan Boyd

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Experts argue that literary and visual presentations impact our social experience to the point of changing how we interact. As to what imitates what when it relates to sports, we can see both angles. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen how much life and art intersect. A few examples demonstrate how closely fiction and reality align. “When the Game Stands Tall” details the aftermath for a high school football team whose 151 winning streak collapses in a loss. What might be expected to be a reality check on dramatic exaggeration in fictional movies, the documentary “Trophy Kids” ends up reinforcing the details. It follows five kids in four sports, all of whom are driven by overzealous parents. “Varsity Blues,” a fictional film about high school football in a small Texas town, shows the underbelly of youth sports as displayed by an abusive coach, an overbearing father, and a “winning at any cost” philosophy. With a lighter touch, the Will Ferrell soccer movie, “Kicking and Screaming,” shows how the psychological scars we earn in youth sports can follow us into adulthood. Whether fictional or real, the characters and their behaviors are equally disturbing. Within the context of youth sports, the broad range of outcomes positive and negative can be found in artistic presentations.

“When the Game Stands Tall” carries the disclaimer, “Inspired by True Events,” meaning that some license was taken. I researched its story after I saw it because I was fascinated that so many dramatic elements could actually exist in one remarkable history. I discovered that most of the narrative was factual. Minor discrepancies for dramatic purposes included a significant game, which was actually played three years before the end of the streak, a devastating second loss that never happened, and two composite players: One, a cocky kid who felt he was God’s gift to the team and, naturally, learns the lesson of humility in the course of the film, and the second, a hotshot running back who was fighting to break the state touchdown record. It’s the second player who I suspected wasn’t real, not because of the subplot of him possibly breaking the record, but because of his relationship with his father. The man was the stereotypical “stage dad” micro-managing his kid’s career, even punching him in the stomach after he failed to make a touchdown when tackled on the two yard line. The battle between father and son got really heated in the front seat of their car when the son accused dad of wanting the touchdown title for his own egotistical reasons, another “trophy to put on the shelf to show how great you are.” In a rage at being challenged, the dad attacks his son, grabs his throat and demands, “Tell me you’ll break the record; promise me you’ll break the record.” The confrontation was difficult to watch because the pain was raw even if imaginary. This fictional element ended up ringing far too true as evidenced by the documentary “Trophy Kids.” A football dad mistreats his son physically, and even more psychologically. The pain in the kid’s eyes during this abuse was haunting. In an attempt to motivate his son, he belittles him. Like déjà vu, the son dares to challenge his father in their car. He explodes. When the son finally exits the car, his mother tries to reason with the father. “He doesn’t respect you. He’s afraid of you. You’re making him scared and insecure.” The father responds, “I’m teaching him to be a man” as the film cuts to the boy sitting on the curb sobbing.

Jon Voight in “Varsity Blues” plays Bud Kilmer, the stereotypical domineering coach that all players fear, but parents love because he gets the job done and brings glory to the football-obsessed town. Kilmer has been coaching for decades and has brought back state and district championships. In the highlighted season, the star quarterback injects his injured knee with anesthetic so he can continue to play, and naturally he blows it out. The coach, who ordered the shot, feigns no knowledge of the injury, a behavior indicating that his focus is on the win not on the players. The backup quarterback, “Mox” Moxon, is reluctantly called upon to step up to play. His football-crazy father, who spent his time under Coach Kilmer warming the bench, wants his son to go on to play Division I football. Instead, Mox wants to attend Brown on an academic scholarship. The climax comes when another player suffers a knee injury during the championship game. Kilmer again orders that the knee be injected so the kid can get back on the field. Mox refuses to reenter the field if that occurs, and the team agrees. Kilmer, realizing he is losing control of the situation, attacks Mox, then attempts to use the attack as a motivator. As coach runs on to the field for the second half, he realizes he is alone.  Considering how much power a coach wields and how intimidated players can be, it begs the question would a team really stand up for what is right.  

Then I read the case of Brian Seamons, a member of a Utah high school football team. Brian was hazed in a particularly brutal manner after exiting the team showers. He contacted school authorities and the police who passed the complaint on to the coach, Doug Snow. Snow suggested Brian meet with the team captains who were two of his assailants to see if they could find some way to resolve this. The captains told Brian he had betrayed the team by reporting the assault and should not be allowed to play until he apologized to the team. The coach agreed and, when Brian refused to apologize, sent him home so he couldn’t play in that night’s game. Brian returned to the coach the next week and stated that he did not owe the team an apology. Snow said he found Brian’s attitude unacceptable and removed him from the team. So Brian sued on the basis of violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The local court denied his suit and said the school couldn’t be held responsible, but an appeals court overturned that decision. Eventually the coach was fired.

On a lighter note, but with serious undertones, “Kicking and Screaming” details the difficulties with not only being the parent of a player, but being the coach of your own child. Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, the son of Buck Weston, the winningest youth soccer coach in the district. Phil spent his playing days riding the bench on his father’s team and receiving plenty of belittling comments. Two decades later, he has to watch his own son face the same humiliation at the hands of Buck. The Gladiators are the best team, but to protect him, Phil has his son, Sam, transferred to the worst team, the Tigers, where he happily plays until the fateful day when the coach doesn’t show. In order to avoid a forfeit, Phil agrees to step in, beginning a transformation to the very type of coach his father is — arrogant, bullying, obnoxious and competitive — much to the dismay of Sam and his teammates. Adding to the mix are two Italian boys, newly immigrated to the U.S., who join the team as star players. Soon the chant becomes, “Give the ball to the Italians.” Phil’s obsession with winning takes the joy out of the game for the kids. The he brazenly challenges his father to a match in order to avenge all his childhood pain. In the midst of the game, as he screams at the kids because of their poor play, he sees their dejection and agony. Realizing that he has the wrong priorities, he lets the boys know that win or lose, he’ll be proud of them. He encourages them to have fun. Because this is the land of happy endings, the Tigers naturally win with Sam scoring the winning goal. Although the ending is saccharine and expected, there’s a warm hopefulness that comes from the moment which I encourage more parents and coaches to realize — the idea that having fun can lead to winning, though it may not and that’s okay too.

I wonder if there are parents and coaches who will see these films and have a mirror thrust in their faces. Will they recognize themselves in the fictional characters, or more to the point, in the real life characters? Will they turn away and deny they’re as bad as or possibly even worse than what’s depicted? When I thought that the running back’s battle with his father couldn’t be real maybe that was wishful thinking on my part because I’ve sat next to parents at soccer who reproach their child’s teammates and hold their kid to extremely high standards. I’ve witnessed post-game yelling sessions where a dad is in his child’s face accusing the player of not caring enough or being weak or slacking off. There is never any praise — these sessions are all about laying blame. If I saw them in a movie (just like I did this week) my reaction would be, “how melodramatic” and “clearly exaggerated to make a point.” Then I remember what I’ve seen. Life imitating art. Could an aggressive parent be jolted into changing his or her behaviors by seeing these parent/child interactions on the screen? I’d hope so, but I’m pretty sure the scenes would be rationalized and minimized. We parents want to believe that we can motivate our children to greatness by being tough on them. The reality is that many of those children end up quitting the game.

I have been helping on a set of video instructions for the F license offered by USSF. The license is meant for volunteer parent coaches of 5 to 10-year-old players. One video is on Coaching Philosophy and includes a brief explanation about why kids quit sports and why they stay with sports. Kids quit because of criticism and outcome-driven play. When only wins are seen as success, we set kids up for failure because even a team with 151 consecutive wins eventually loses. Most teams lose a quarter to over a half of their games, so equating wins with success and losses with failure leaves kids ping ponging between narrow singular outcomes. Add the burden of criticism even if they win, and no one would want to keep playing. Kids stay committed to a sport and motivated to step onto the playing field when they are having fun. They need to see they are improving, that they get to be with friends, wear cool stuff, and develop a sports identity. Winning doesn’t enter the picture. Certainly winning is fun, breaking a record is awesome, and being a champion boosts the ego, but only a small sliver of players and teams get to attain those conquests. Most teams live in the world of average, and yet those players keep coming back and enjoying themselves because they get out of the sport more than the thrill of a win. The parent that demands perfection often ends up with a flawed child — maybe not athletically, but in other ways. In the “Game,” they talk about making the perfect effort meaning each player commits to a set of goals and does his best to achieve them. But it’s not the achievement that’s significant; it’s the effort.

I hope we can learn from art to lead better lives. While we may rationalize that dramatic license has been taken, we also have to see the grain of truth on which the scene is built. Likewise, we can’t minimize what happens in our lives because those events aren’t as dramatic or serious as what we see in fictional media. The arts can be an enticing inspiration for our behaviors because make believe can present an appealing perfect outcome. Our kids don’t always have the context in which to measure that appeal, but we can guide them. Likewise, when something in the arts hits home, we need to use those vignettes as teachable moments. After you see a movie or TV show about sports, ask your child what rang true and what rang false about the program. If the presentation purports to be true, research and find out how close to reality it actually comes. Talk about why the writer and director changed things up. Help kids to develop the analytical skills to be able to decipher what’s right and what’s wrong. Seeing what happens both in life and in art can provide lessons that will support our children throughout youth sports and give us parents food for thought.

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The Unconquerable Soul

Susan Boyd

When it comes to the Little League World Series, the boys of summer are actual boys and girls. Over the years, this youth event’s exposure has evolved from a small paragraph in the sports section announcing the final results of the competition to a professionally produced televised sporting event on ESPN. Most people are well-aware of the league and its August competition in Williamsport, Pa. My brothers, who weren’t really into athletics, participated in Little League because that’s what boys did in the summer. My sons played baseball but never participated in Little League because our town didn’t have teams, much to the frustration of many families who viewed the league as prestigious. Last summer, our oldest grandson’s team won the honor to go to its regional but was eliminated in a tough final game. They came that close to going to the World Series – and you only get one chance. In two more summers, his little brother’s team will attempt to qualify. People see it as a significant badge of honor in the world of youth sports.    

Lots of powerful stories have come from this year’s event. Mo’Ne Davis, a girl, mows them down from the pitcher’s mound. The first all-black team, Jackie Robinson West from Chicago, has come out of an urban initiative that Little League instituted to rejuvenate youth baseball in the inner cities of America. Having watched my grandson compete, I know how seriously kids take the sport and the opportunity to appear on a world stage. Such exposure brings great ego boosts, but public defeats bring great despair. Only one team will survive to win the trophy and they will leave 15 teams in their wake.

In my humble view, the most powerful story to come out of the tournament came from a loss. The Cumberland Americans from Rhode Island were defeated by Jackie Robinson West and with that defeat were eliminated from the competition. Any loss is tough, but for 11 to 13 year-olds, it can seem like the end of the world. Their limited life experience doesn’t give them the broad context to put the loss in perspective. They don’t see a future beyond the loss and they feel so personally culpable in creating it. Enter Coach Dave Belisle, who gathered his team after the defeat and gave a spontaneous speech that represents the character every coach should possess. I think the speech is so great I’m going to present it here in its entirety thanks to the Providence Journal. As you read it, consider if you could be so composed, positive and supportive in the face of a heartbreaking loss. Consider if you as a parent or a coach rise to the level established here.

 “Heads up high. Heads up high. I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys. There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season. It’s been an incredible journey.

“We fought. Look at the score – 8-7, 12-10 in hits. We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!

“The only reason why I’ll probably end up shedding a tear is that this is the last time I’m going to coach you guys. But I’m going to bring back with me, the coaching staff is going to bring back, you guys are going to bring back that no one other team can provide – that’s pride. Pride.

“You’re going to take that for the rest of your lives, what you provided for the town of Cumberland. You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK?

“You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way. If everyone would play baseball like the Cumberland Americans, this would be the greatest game.

“The lessons you guys have learned along the journey, you’re never going to forget. We’re going to have some more fun. We have two more days of fun. When you walk around this ballpark in the next couple of days, they’re going to look at you and say: “Hey, you guys were awesome!’

“Everybody has said: You guys are awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Absolutely awesome.

“It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.

“There’s only going to be one team that’s going to walk out of here as World Series champions. Only one. We got down to the nitty-gritty. We’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second. In the world! Right?

“So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.

“I love you guys. I’m gonna love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment in my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time – a looooong time. I’m getting to be an old man. I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.

“So, for the last time, we’re going to yell Americans: One, two three – Americans!”

“OK. Good job. Let’s go. Time to go.”

I can’t read this speech without misting up.  As Matt Lauer said on the Today show, “Coach I know what you can do when the summer is over – open a school for coaches and parents.” I second that opinion. Youth sports, even when they end up at the highest competition, should always be about three things: Fun, sportsmanship and pride. It shouldn’t be about winning. Winning can happen and can be a goal, but only within the framework of those three elements. Pride shouldn’t come solely from a win but from games well-played, from even small improvements, from building friendships, and from doing one’s best representing the team, the family, and the community. A win is meaningless if it is gained at the expense of the self-respect of good sportsmanship. And a win that comes from anger, brow-beating, destruction of self-esteem, and blame ceases to be fun and ceases to be of significant value in the formative years of youth sports. A team can be competitive, can set high goals, can triumph and still retain fun, sportsmanship and pride. Coach Belisle’s speech shows how that’s possible.  I’m in awe of the man. His off-the-cuff, heartfelt, and meaningful speech provides a standard each of us should try to achieve. He gave those kids a true unconquerable soul.

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Resistance

Susan Boyd

At the pool this week I witnessed yet again a child being coaxed, then argued, then pulled into the water when she didn’t want to go. I understand the motivation behind the parent’s choices. We hate to see our kids have any hesitancy. In the first place, we firmly believe that if they just gave an activity a chance they’d end up loving it. Second, timidity is never rewarded in our society. Third, we end up translating hesitant behavior from our kids into a parenting weakness. It becomes embarrassing to be the parent standing there with a trembling child while all their friends are jumping off the diving board or assertively knocking the ball around or rushing down the giant slide at the playground. In our adult perspective we can’t understand what there is to be afraid of. We also get frustrated that our kids don’t trust us enough to know we’d never purposefully put them in harm’s way. So we react by forcing the issue in the hope that once they hit the water, smack the ball, finish the slide they’ll see how awesome the experience really is and never again resist the opportunity. But that’s rarely the cure.

My oldest grandson is a fierce football lineman. He has absolutely no hesitation when it comes to taking down an opponent or falling on a fumbled ball, risking any number of players piling on him. He leapt into tackle football when he was just 10 years old and already aggressive. On the flip side, he still can’t ride a bike. He’s 14 now and has resolutely refused to try. The feeling of instability, speed and exposure make him far too nervous, and as the years pass, his introversion increases. He’s 5-foot-11 but faced with any threat of having to mount a bike, and that teenage hulk withers — becoming cranky, whiney, and clearly terrified. We all know that reaction. No matter how fearless our children may be about most things, there are clearly pursuits they will not do despite our persistent efforts to persuade them.

Each of us carries some demon that seizes our senses and makes us incapable of participating in certain events. I’m claustrophobic, so imagine my reaction when we took a boat into Spook Caverns in Iowa and had to duck down in the belly of our craft, lying flat as the roof of the cave entrance slid over us for 100 feet, just 2 inches above the gunwales of the boat. I was merely girding myself for a dark cave and had no idea that I had to endure ten minutes tucked into a ball as solid rock trapped me between the stone cave entrance and the dark cold waters. It was far too late to turn back. Worse, I would have to repeat the episode in order to exit the caves. I remember nothing about the amazing natural formations we saw because I was trying so hard to control my beating heart and not hyperventilate. My panic didn’t ease until about an hour after exiting. That’s how intensely the experience affected me. Therefore, I have real sympathy for any child face with an activity they fear. 

Many fears seem justified like skydiving. The difficulty comes when our child’s hesitancy is attached to activities that we really don’t deem to be frightening. Why is our child so petrified to enter the soccer field? Nothing happened to create such pause. There was no injury, personal slight or embarrassment. Yet, here he is dragging backward on our hand and screaming in terror. We certainly try to discover what’s wrong, but we’re also afraid to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by feeding our child an excuse. We ask why and get in return “I (gasp) don’t (sob) know (choke).” The fear is real but seems so unfounded. A child who loves to splash and immerse herself in baths absolutely refuses to enter a pool. The boy who clambers up a tree, even too high for us to feel comfortable, won’t climb the ladder up the slide. In many cases, this resistance doesn’t fade with age when maturing reason should make the safety obvious and the trust in parental assurances should be stronger. 

How can we deal with it when an important activity hinges on a child overcoming the resistance? Most experts say the less we push, the better it will be. Try once or twice to see if the opposition is fleeting, then just agree to sit and observe. We shouldn’t point out when younger kids or friends are participating because that merely piles on a sense of inadequacy to a child. Get involved in a fairly passive way by cheering on teammates or other kids who are participating. Be prepared to do that for several games or visits. Reinforce that when your child is ready, you’ll be ready too. Make it clear that you will both be attending practices, lessons, or play time even if all you do is watch so that your child knows that a commitment is being made. It’s OK to be reluctant, but it won’t let any child “off the hook.” Be careful not to lecture or belittle. As much as we want to, we can’t see the world through our children’s eyes. Whatever terror exists may be completely intangible to everyone but the kid. So we should respect the dread but remain steadfast in continuing to face it.

Another grandson couldn’t wait for soccer to start. He’d watch his uncles play, had been to dozens of large matches and tournaments, witnessed the chaos of training and games, and loved having his own uniform, cleats and shin guards just like all the “big kids.” So I was shocked that he went from bouncing up and down as I tied up his cleats to totaling digging in his heels as we set foot on the field. He clutched my leg like it was a life-saving log in a tsunami and refused to take another step. His coach came up and tried to cajole him into joining in, and two friends called out, “Come on Archer.” But nothing would make him move or release his grip. So we sat down and watched. What was even more surprising is that he had done one session of indoor soccer training in a school gym, which he had loved.  I can’t tell you what changed and changed in a hurry, but there it was. He wasn’t budging. We came back twice a week for three weeks and just sat and watched. One day the ball rolled over to him and he stood up and threw it back. The kids cheered and yelled “thanks.” He stood there for a few minutes then asked me if he could go play. And that was it. Who knows what switches were activated in his brain, but I was glad he finally felt secure enough to join in. He quit soccer two years later in favor of football, but he hesitated the same way with flag football for two weeks. I guess it was just his process.

The same time Archer was holding back there was a girl who also refused to go onto the field. She wasn’t in his group, but was his age, 5. Her dad simply swept her up and carried her kicking and screaming onto the field where he set her down and turned around to leave. “No Daddy, no…” “Stay there and play.” The poor thing stood there sobbing for the 30 minutes of the training. When it was over, Dad scooped her up again and took her to the car. This scene played out each practice for several sessions and then one week she didn’t return. It was so painful to watch but not my place to step in. He knew his child and obviously believed she’d respond to complete immersion. However, behavior specialists say that such tough love for youngsters can be traumatizing and decrease trust which is so vital for us in raising our children. We may feel it’s best for them to bite the bullet, but they can feel unsupported further feeding their fears.

It’s difficult to have our children so publicly challenge our self-image as it relates to parenting. There’s a billboard on the Chicago-Milwaukee freeway promoting foster care and adoption that says “You don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.” But I think we often believe that when our children are less than perfect it reflects on us as being imperfect parents. We think we are being judged and we may be, which doesn’t mean that the judgment is correct. The reality is that our kids are like behavior sharks circling around the blood which is our insecurity. Years ago in the grocery store, my two daughters were being particularly demanding for every sugary cereal, snack, and soda they laid eyes on.  My stern “no” didn’t stem the begging. After an extended series of whiney “please, please, please,” I told them stop or there would be no TV when we got home. At that moment my oldest daughter spied a grandmotherly patron passing by. The little imp screamed, covered her face and said, “Please don’t hit me!” The grandmother stopped and almost came at me, but I was shaking — with laughter. Despite the obvious lack of wisdom in her choice, I had to give my child credit for audacity. She knew that such a wild accusation might make me cave to avoid public embarrassment. Luckily, the woman obviously raised a few kids of her own and saw through the ruse. “You’ve got your hands full,” she said as she patted me on the shoulder. And yes the girls were grounded from TV when we got home.

If resistance is a child’s attempt to garner sympathy and manipulate a situation, we’re still fairly powerless against that. All we can do is continue in the activity in a quiet, steady, and non-threatening way. If it’s a real fear, the child will have to conquer it on his or her own either by garnering the courage or the trust in us to try. Otherwise, like my grandson and biking, it may just be something they never do. I’m a firm believer that eventually peer pressure will accomplish what we parents can’t. A child who won’t go in the water may well do it if her friends at school act shocked that she doesn’t swim. We parents have to be the rock upon which our kids build their confidence. It’s not bad parenting if our kids refuse to do something. They have separate interests, temperament and confidence issues from us and these can come into conflict with our plans. The best solution is to keep our plans, but be willing to allow our kids to opt out. They can sit on the edge of the pool while we swim, and we don’t need to be constantly encouraging them to join us. Let them take the lead. The edge isn’t as interesting or fun as being in the middle of things, so usually, eventually, the resistance fades.

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