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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


Soccer as a Social Force

Susan Boyd

With the World Cup dominating the news for the next two weeks, the event can be viewed as unifying nations with a variety of cultural, religious and political differences peacefully under the umbrella of a world-wide sport. People bond within and between nations celebrating victories and agonizing over defeats, sharing the experiences within the soccer community. Yet soccer unifies the world in a much more significant way — as a force for social good. Just looking at host country, Brazil, people are aware of the issues that come with the clash between the haves and the have nots. So against the backdrop of festivity, we all pause to acknowledge how much work needs to be done in every country represented at the World Cup. Football is played all over the world in the most remote and underprivileged areas and as such has become an instinctive pathway to reach groups that might otherwise distrust the intrusion of aid and workers to their communities. Soccer also provides a means to inspire and collect contributions to promote better health, sanitation, safety, education and housing. While our children play the game they love, they also have the opportunity to make an impact on the needs and disadvantages of their football brothers and sisters around the world.         

US Youth Soccer provides a number of grants and programs to groups in the U.S. to enable soccer in communities throughout America. In tandem with Liberty Mutual, a grant is offered to clubs who take a quiz on how to play safely and reasonably. This “Responsible Sports” grant can be won by any team who registers and then has as many members as possible take the quiz. The top 15 clubs can earn a $2,500 grant to be used to offset the costs of uniforms, equipment and upgrades for the club. The program gives all members of the club an opportunity to easily help out. US Youth Soccer also provides TOPSoccer, which uses volunteers to provide soccer for children with disabilities. Participants can learn the sport no matter what assistance they may need. Larger balls, volunteers to help push wheel chairs, firm surfaces for players using walkers, and guides for children with visual issues bring the sport to all kids who have the passion to play. United States Soccer Foundation sponsors the Passback Program, which collects good used soccer equipment to share with players who don’t have the resources to play.   Clubs and state associations can provide collection sites through USSF and get help sending that equipment to the proper locations. Players can contribute jerseys, shorts, shoes, balls, shin guards and goals.         

Several private organizations use the 2014 World Cup as a backdrop to promote their causes. The World FC Project planned a trip from Chicago, Ill., to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, passing through the 10 American countries that are participating in the World Cup to bring soccer to underserved areas in these nations. They want to use the passion for futbol “as a tool for social change.” Street Child World Cup in association with Save the Children recognizes that millions of children around the world survive solely on the streets of their cities. The parent organization, Street Child United, has brought together 19 teams from various countries around the world made up of street children to play in a World Cup prior to the big event. Their aim is “to provide a platform for street children to be heard, to challenge negative stereotypes of street children and to promote the rights of street children.” Walk to the World Cup is a project created by three English football fanatics who are walking from Mendoza, Argentina to Porto Alegre, Brazil (the southern-most World Cup site) a journey of 1966 kilometers.  The idea is to raise enough money to construct a well in drought-ridden Bahia Brazil. 

There are also soccer –related charities that offer players a chance to contribute simply by playing. Kick for Hope sponsors tournaments whose proceeds are used to provide water to areas in the form of wells and bathrooms. Simply by entering the tournaments and playing, kids are participating in projects to help around the world. Your own team and club can organize juggling contests, dribbling competitions, and tournaments from which all monies go to a soccer charity. These can be a fun way to give back and also give a club some welcome media attention.  Create your event and then send out press releases to all news organizations in your area. They are always looking for “feel good” stories.  If you organize these events before or during tryouts you might even get a residual benefit of luring more players to your club.  A little creativity can result in big rewards for both your club and for soccer charities around the world. When sponsoring or selecting a tournament consider attaching yours to a charity or looking for a tournament with a charitable connection. It’s a great way to make soccer a force for improvement in the lives of children all over the world.                     

There are also soccer sponsored charities to which you can give directly. Charity Ball purchases new balls to be hand-delivered to children around the world. It was founded by a youth player, Ethan King, who has played soccer in South Africa and the U.S.  He accompanied his father on several trips throughout Africa to help repair water wells and saw firsthand how desperately kids in the villages wanted to play soccer but were thwarted by the lack of a proper ball.  For each $25 contribution a new ball will be purchased and delivered to children in developing countries. Challenger Sports, headquartered in Kansas City raises money through camps, an academy, and tournaments as well as direct donations to provide all the equipment necessary to play soccer for under-sponsored groups in both the United States and around the world, particularly in Central and South America and Africa. In a grassroots effort to introduce and support soccer in areas without resources Challenger Sports also provides coaching clinics for volunteer parents through a partnership with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America educating over 3000 volunteer coaches in 2011.  Through soccer they also educate players in war-torn countries about the dangers of unexploded land mines. Mazamba encourages exchanges with American and African soccer youth using the sport to promote education, cultural understanding, and building political bridges. Football 4 Africa is a British organization who uses soccer in Britain and Africa to promote fundraising to build schools in Africa. They recently completed their first school and are now collecting for a second to be built.  Soccer can attract kids to educational settings which they might otherwise bypass, so Football 4 Africa provides donated soccer kits to children in villages to encourage them to get an education along with the fun of playing the sport.                     

We are lucky to have lots of supporting organizations to help our kids compete. These groups establish leagues, tournaments, and scouting opportunities that undeveloped countries don’t have.  The World Cup brings together the best soccer players around the planet, many of whom had the good fortune to have come up through a strong development program, while other players had less support.  Additionally there are millions of kids who may have tremendous skill but due to poverty, isolation, and malnutrition don’t have the chance to grab the brass ring. Soccer can be a conduit not only to athletic accomplishments but to the opportunities for the basic necessities of life.  Using football to reach out to communities around the world takes the language of play to unite us in a common cause.  When Robbie was in Kenya to do relief work in malaria prevention he played soccer in every location he visited.  While he and the kids didn’t speak the same language they communicated through the game.  He gained their trust and friendship by simply kicking around a ball.  And through those friendship he was able to earn the trust of parents to teach them about using mosquito tents.  You can go to any vacant lot, alley, or field in the world, start juggling a ball, and have a dozen people ready to participate in a pick-up game.  That’s the universal power of soccer to attract people and in that attraction lies a social force beyond the game.

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Kid Focused, Coach Driven

Sam Snow

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. The mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.

Last November the Institute held a roundtable on Project Play:

Both youth soccer coaches and administrators will benefit from reading the report. Here is the link to the final report from that conference.

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It’s Hot Out There

Susan Boyd

Summer has become the season for training, tournaments and games for youth sports. It’s the one season where coaches can have players for large blocks of time and schedule competitive tournaments without having to work around school commitments. It’s a perfect time for everyone involved to get serious about their sport. The downside? It’s summer, and the temperatures combined with the humidity make for some dangerous conditions for young athletes. The statistics aren’t good when it comes to heatstroke injuries and death over the last decade. Heatstroke is the third biggest cause of deaths among high school athletes. We parents need to be sure that our kids play and train safely when the heat index rises.             

Heat-related illness in youth players has increased 133 percent from 1997 to 2006. Young athletes account for 47.6 percent of heat-related injuries, the highest group rate. Boys are more likely to sustain these injuries. From 1997 to 2006, 31 football players died of heat-stroke injuries and 64.7 percent were either overweight or obese, a strong contributing factor in the deaths. Although the grueling training that football players go through can lead to dehydration and heat stroke, we parents shouldn’t just assume that heavy exertion is the only thing to fear. Two out of three kids arrive at practices already dehydrated. Even kids playing outside don’t take water breaks often enough and need parents to monitor and insist upon water intake. Overall, the prevention of heat-related illness and death relies on three important factors: 1) Proper hydration; 2) Early identification of heat-related conditions; 3) Proper management and treatment of symptoms.          

Before practices or games even begin, players need to hydrate. Gatorade has created products that address the before, during and after of hydration needs, but in reality kids just require sufficient water intake. In the hour before practice, kids should consume proper fluids, which can include sports drinks but need only be as simple as water — drinking at minimum 4 ounces, but 8 ounces would be best. Purchasing a 16-ounce water bottle with ounce lines on the side helps us and our kids know if enough fluids are being consumed. They should be drinking on the way to practice, while the coach is talking, and have their bottle refilled as practice begins. Iced water may taste good, but can cause cramping, so mildly chilled water is a better alternative. We often think about kids losing water during exertion, but most of us can lose as much as two cups of water just being out in the sun and humid weather. Keeping the car air conditioned if possible will help reduce volume lost through normal sweating. Players who lose just 1-to-2 percent of their body weight in during exertion can suffer serious physiological function effects.           

Hydration needs to be seriously considered during all practices. Water breaks need to be taken every 20 to 30 minutes. Coaches need to be sure that players replace sufficiently, so watch that kids drink. Thirst is not a good indicator of how dehydrated a child is getting. By the time we experience thirst, we are already well on our way to having serious heat-caused problems. Therefore, even if kids say they aren’t thirsty, they need to drink 4 to 8 oz. during each break. Soccer players naturally have great pride in their endurance of field play. Players go up to 45 minutes without a major break, so they develop a tough guy/gal attitude. However, during times of high heat and humidity, 45 minutes is too long to go without water. Many leagues and tournaments that play during the summer have mandated breaks after 20 to 25 minutes, which most medical personnel say is perfect. Five minutes to rehydrate and cool down can be vital to keeping players healthy on the field.            

Hydration doesn’t have to be just pouring fluid down the throats of players. External hydration can be just as important. Here’s the circumstance where ice water can be their friend. Teams should keep a cooler filled with iced wet cloths that players can apply to the back of their necks, their wrists, and their temples to chill themselves down. Having some icy water to pour over their heads and necks can really help lower body temperature, which helps retain fluids. During heat-illness episodes, one of the serious complications is a sudden and severe increase in temperature of 102 to 106 degrees, which can cause seizures, brain damage and death. Ice water will quickly reduce temperatures to a safer level so should always be on hand in case of an emergency.             

As important as maintaining hydration before and during exercise is replenishing after exercise. Many adults and young athletes may feel that once they finish the “heavy lifting” they are out of danger of dehydration and heat-related illness, but in fact the stresses of fluid loss and exertion can play out slowly and be just as dangerous 30 minutes to an hour after activity. Therefore, be sure that kids drink at least 8 ounces of fluid following a game and continue to drink for the rest of the day, especially with a high heat index. Most health professionals say we should be drinking half a gallon a day for normal intake. That’s equal to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Another rule is to intake half your body weight in ounces per day. If you weigh 90 pounds, you’ll need a minimum of 45 ounces of water a day. Add another 32 ounces if you do strenuous exercise no matter your weight or size. You can over-hydrate, but that’s really rare so you shouldn’t worry about that. It’s more likely that players will under-hydrate.           

The warning signs of heat-related illness come on rapidly and must be dealt with quickly. You need to keep in mind that thirst and dry-mouth come later in the process, so no one should wait until they experience these symptoms. The spectrum of symptoms have two tiers. In the first tier, the symptoms, once recognized and attended to, can result in a cautious return to play. In the second tier, the symptoms require removal from play and often immediate medical attention. In the first tier, muscle cramps are the first serious indication of dehydration. We often see players go down with cramps, which can usually be alleviated on the field with stretching and muscle massage. But the cause of the cramps has to be attended to as well. Players should immediately hydrate, and can usually do so while the cramps are being worked out. Coaches need to watch for flushed faces which are a major indicator of early dehydration. All players will sweat during exercise and particularly during exercise in the heat, but if that sweating continues profusely during a break after being wiped and cooled down, a player should probably sit until the sweating can be controlled. Naturally, any player complaining of thirst or dry mouth should be taken off the field for a break. Players who complain of light-headedness need to sit down and hydrate. When the symptoms progress to the second tier, things take a more serious turn. Fainting, severe dizziness, nausea and vomiting, loss of coordination, abnormally high body temperature and profuse sweating are all symptoms of second tier heat illness. Teams should have an instant thermometer available to take the player’s temperature which can climb to over 104 degrees rapidly if not cooled immediately. The shift from first tier to second tier symptoms can occur in literally a few minutes, so adults need to be watchful of anyone experiencing first tier symptoms. Players should be immediately evaluated and removed from play for the rest of the day. If symptoms persist or worsen, immediate medical care is necessary. It’s always better to err on the side of caution since a kid with second tier conditions can slip quickly into a possible dangerous and fatal medical state.              

Most symptoms can be dealt with through simple interventions. Shade with trees, a tent, even an umbrella, should always be available to help a player cool down. Those water bottle fans that spray water while they rotate are actually quite effective in helping to bring temperature down. Ice water cloths and ice water splashes are important to have on hand. Potable water should always be available and used during regular breaks no more than 20 to 30 minutes apart. We stop games for lightning strikes, and we should be just as diligent to the dangers of a high heat index which measures the relationship between heat and humidity. A heat index over 90 indicates activity should be done with extreme caution, an index over 103 means there is danger, and an index over 125 means extreme danger. Experts say that indices over 103 should be considered unhealthy and people should seek cool shelter and refrain from any unnecessary activity. While humid Southern states have higher, consistent heat indices during the summer, “dry heat” states like Nevada can reach a dangerous heat index. For example a temperature of 96 with just 45% humidity qualifies as 104 heat index. Scheduling games in the early morning or early evening hours when the sun is at its lowest point and temperatures are cooler helps alleviate some of the danger. If a club is running a camp, having lunch and indoor chalk board work during the hottest time of day can insure some safety from heat exhaustion and stroke for campers. Coaches should be responsible for keeping track of the heat index, making sure all players are taking appropriate breaks with water and shade, having players remove all unnecessary equipment, and monitoring players’ exercise so that those with less conditioning don’t overdo it.  Players should wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing that can easily allow for evaporation and have water with them at all times. Changing sweaty clothing can be helpful as well.            

Studies have shown that flavored waters are consumed more readily and at greater volume than plain water, hence the popularity of sports drinks. But many of these have high sugar content that can actually end up upsetting the stomach, leaching water into the bowels, and causing diarrhea. Therefore parents might want to consider using the flavoring drops from MiO, Dasani and Crystal Light. These contain no sugars, require just a few drops per 16 ounces, and provide a great variety of flavors that kids enjoy. Putting 1/4 teaspoon of salt in 16 ounces of water actually provides the same electrolyte replacement that sports drinks offer at lower cost and without the sugar. The amount of potassium sports drinks provide is negligible. Avocado, bananas, and many citrus fruits can serve as great potassium sources. Whatever we parents can do to insure that our kids drink enough on hot, humid days we should.             

Coaches, parents, and players need to take heat seriously rather than just a hardship to be stoically borne. Heat-illness can be dangerous, even deadly, so we need to be watchful for its appearance and diligent in its treatment. It’s better to err to the side of over-caution, than to let symptoms become so serious that they can’t be easily treated. Heat-induced problems come on and progress quickly, often not allowing for time to “wait and see.” Children who take any diuretic medications, have heart arrhythmias, or have any acute medical conditions such as a cold or the flu should either proceed cautiously or not at all when the heat index is above 80. As parents, we can’t be shy about insisting on appropriate water and shade breaks, and we need to be sure our kids have water available at all times. Any child exhibiting serious symptoms of heat-illnesses should be immediately removed from activity, cooled down and hydrated. If the child is disoriented, vomiting, complaining of headaches, or unusually flushed he or she should probably be taken for a medical evaluation or at a minimum placed in an air condition environment and observed. Heat-related deaths are on the rise in the general population and among athletes in particular. When we complain that it’s hot, we need to remember that our active kids, whether at practice or just out in the backyard, can be seriously affected by the heat.

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Never a Sure Thing

Susan Boyd

I assumed Memorial Day weekend would be the usual mix of tournament games, lunches out and sunburns. We weren’t disappointed on any front. One grandson’s team won the consolation bracket and the other lost in the semis of the winner’s bracket. We ate wings, steaks, sub sandwiches, pizza, and drank a fair amount of Starbucks — the tournament parents’ elixir. Overall, it was a satisfying competition. However, something happened that dominated the soccer news. The U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the World Cup was announced, and Landon Donovan was left off. The pundits went wild. Donovan was hoping to play in his fourth World Cup, the first American male player to do so. American woman Kristine Lilly has played in five, and Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm have each played in four. At 32, Donovan could still possibly make the 2018 roster, but it would be highly unlikely. His World Cup dreams ended last Thursday, barring an injury to a rostered player.           

Why is this story so significant? There are several reasons. The U.S. has an extremely difficult group from which it will probably not emerge. The team has new leadership in Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan has been a proven goal-scorer and assist-maker. He is well-liked and respected by fellow players. He has a strong work ethic. Finally, he is a symbol of U.S. Men’s soccer to hundreds of thousands of fans.             

The U.S. World Cup group, nicknamed “The Death Group,” includes Portugal, Ghana and Germany. Only two teams advance, and on the basis of experience, skill and history, the U.S. is the least likely to move on. Germany has been in the finals seven times and has won three times. In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Ghana was in the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinals, respectively. In a mirror-image of Ghana, Portugal made the Quarterfinals in 2006 and the Round of 16 in 2010. The U.S. team made the Round of 16 in 2010, finishing 12th, behind Portugal (11th), Ghana (seventh) and Germany (third). Our national team is definitely the underdog in group play. Therefore, reporters and fans argue that the team needs the steadying influence that Donovan can bring to the competition. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are both weathered players in the international scene, but Altidore is well-known to be inconsistent. Donovan could provide some stability even from the bench, an intangible benefit of having him on the roster. Like Dempsey, Donovan can play several positions, giving the team flexibility should it face injuries during the World Cup. Since only two teams can advance from the group, the U.S. needs to have at minimum a win and a strong goal differential. Donovan could be the player who delivers what is needed, as he has in past competitions.            

Bob Bradley had been the national team coach, who was well-respected by his players. When he was replaced in late July 2011 by the German, Jurgen Klinsmann, there was some immediate suspicion from veteran players. Landon Donovan didn’t completely mesh with Klinsmann, a situation only made worse by Donovan taking a four month sabbatical from soccer in 2012 — after his club team, the LA Galaxy, won the MLS Championship and just prior to the national team entering the final qualifying rounds for the World Cup. Klinsmann found Donovan’s reasons, “exhaustion and mental stress,” ridiculous and a show of weakness. He’s always felt that Landon was soft on the field, which stems from his days coaching him at Bayern Munich in 2009. The sabbatical indicated to Klinsmann that Donovan lacked commitment, a word that the German believes is the most important factor in soccer. Needing to take the reins firmly when it comes to the World Cup, Klinsmann probably saw Donovan is an antagonist to his leadership despite the player’s continual support of the coach’s vision. Sarcastically, Bruce Arena, a former national team coach said, “If there are 23 players better than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.” Ironically, Klinsmann invited Donovan to rejoin the team after his sabbatical and just in time for two significant qualifying games against Costa Rica and Mexico. In the must-win Mexico game, his corner kick assist on Eddie Johnson’s header and his goal against Mexico helped insure the U.S. World Cup qualification despite a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica.              

That performance was only one of the many clutch performances Donovan has delivered. In addition, his five World Cup goals are equal to the World Cup goals scored by Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie combined. In fact, Donovan has scored more World Cup goals than any other CONCACAF player. He scored the game-winning goal in injury time for a key win against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. He is the first MLS player to reach both 50 goals and 50 assists. He has more goals than any other national team player in history and passed Cobi Jones’ assist record. He has the most caps (international games) of all active national team players. Of his five World Cup goals, three came in the last World Cup. This pedigree might have been enough to earn him a spot on the roster, but Klinsmann passed over other previous World Cup veterans, choosing instead to go with a younger squad, perhaps thinking about 2018. The choice to drop those players could be easily defended, but Donovan’s snub is more problematic. Nevertheless, Klinsmann argued that the players he selected were just a “bit better” than Donovan, never specifying what those attributes were.              

The intangibles Donovan brings to the game can’t be discounted. He has the respect of his peers, so he has the ability to encourage them to a win even when in a hole. The U.S. may well need to come from behind in several World Cup games, so we’ll need the calming influence of player who has not only been there but overcome that. Donovan, through his dangerous scoring reputation, has the ability to pull defenders to him while leaving other players open to score. Just being on the field could be an important factor in the U.S. getting out of group play. Klinsmann may have felt that the gravity Donovan brings to the pitch wasn’t sufficient to overcome any weakness in play that Klinsmann saw at camp. Or the coach may have completely discounted the intangibles. There is one more factor that Donovan brings to the table — fans. He is arguably the best known national team player, especially for young fans. That monetary team support comes with the purchase of official gear and mementoes and in viewership that ups ad revenue in which the team shares. There probably won’t be much reduction in fans watching since it is the World Cup after all, but there may be a decrease in the purchase of gear unless the team creates a new hero. Donovan also knows the ins and outs of all the teams in our group. He’s played with or against most of the primary players, as have Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DeMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley. Having extra experience on the pitch can only augment what those latter players bring. Donovan has been a complementary player to these teammates for years, so he knows their style of play, where they will be off the ball, and where he should be to maximize their talents. Together, they understand how to move around their opponents.             

Despite how his sabbatical may contradict this, he has a strong work ethic. Actually his intensity to train and be the best he can be on the field probably led to the need for a break. He admits he’s not as young as many of the players brought into the pool, so he may not be perfect day after day of training, but he’ll keep at it and always keep improving. He has great fitness and the willingness to work on that fitness daily. Additionally, he encourages other players to up their fitness and skills both through example and actual prompting. He has started in literally hundreds of games and has played professional soccer since age 17, as well as his national team appearances. He regularly plays 70 to 90 minutes a game, and will stay in the game through overtimes. On top of his playing schedule, he participates in dozens of personal appearances and camps promoting the game to young players and fans. He has done interviews after miserable losses with dignity and poise. He has been the public face of the national team for over a decade.            

I am guessing less than a day after he was left off the roster he was preliminarily signed by ESPN as a commentator.  He speaks Spanish, so he could even be an analyst for Univision.  Since playing on the national team provides no income, Donovan will definitely benefit financially should he go the broadcast route. Still, I think if you asked him whether he’d rather make money or play in the World Cup, he wouldn’t even hesitate to answer World Cup play. While no one wishes an injury on any player, Donovan would be happy to step in should that unfortunate event occur. He’ll be in Brazil as a player, a fan, or a broadcaster, but he’d much rather be a player.           

What lesson does this hold for young soccer players? Nothing is for sure. No matter how good you may be or think you may be, coaches, scouts and referees have their own perspectives. Your abilities could be top-notch but not fit into the tactical plan a coach has or the hole a scout needs to fill on a college or pro team. When our kids don’t make the team they really wanted or sit on the bench, it may have less to do with their skills than with a bigger picture that doesn’t include them. One way to offset that possibility is to make themselves as versatile a player as they can. Robbie is a forward who has played midfield and even defense when the team needed it. Bryce is a goalkeeper who has played forward, and scored a fair share of goals when the coach called on him. Kids who can be slotted into several positions end up having more playing time and more security when it comes to tryouts. It’s fun to be the starring goal scorer, but if the team is occasionally lacking a strong center midfielder to distribute the ball to a striker, the coach may opt for a player who can fill both roles. Teams need to have flexibility, so players need to work on adaptability. Donovan was a versatile player, but he also needed to have the respect and trust of the coach. Parents can encourage our children to listen to the coach, not be contentious, and be supportive of other players and the coach’s vision. Likewise, parents should not be confrontational with the coach. If we feel our kids are being overlooked for their talents, then we should consider a team switch. An entire team and/or club has no obligation to change to accommodate our child. We may not agree that our kids should be snubbed, just as thousands of fans and pundits don’t agree that Donovan should have been snubbed. However, the reality is that the coach and the team management have the right to make choices that seem odd, unreasonable and even stupid, that we have to accept. That’s a tough lesson, but learning it helps our kids navigate through lots of life’s twists and turns. The one sure thing is that nothing is certain.

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