“Do you want to do wrestling again this year?” I asked my 7-year-old Parker last fall.
“No. I think I’m going to take this season off. Maybe I’ll do it next year.”
A few months later…
“Do you want to do baseball again this year?” I asked Parker.
“No. Not this year. Maybe next time.”
A few months later…
“Do you want to do football again in the fall?” I asked Parker.
“Nah. It got pretty hot with all that equipment when we started. And then, at the end, it was really cold. Maybe next time.”
My wife I were disappointed, but as I’ve noted before, I was done forcing the kids to do any sports. However my disappointment was compounded by the social feedback I got when telling fellow dads about the boy’s decision.
One fellow dad joked: “I just found out Parker’s not signing up for baseball. You’re messing me up — we were going to coach together.”
“What am I going to do?” I said. “He doesn’t want to play.”
And from my other friend Keith: “Parker’s not going to play … Oh man, that stinks!”
Yes, yes, yes. Whenever a little boy decides not to play a sport (especially baseball, God forbid), it seems to offend the universe and everyone in it. I get it. Most of us are guilty of having a model child in our head and then trying to nudge our offspring as closely into that mold as possible. We sign them up for things the model calls for, and try to get them as close to this ideal as possible. Sometimes it works pretty well, but often our nudging comes up against the reality that few children fit it perfectly, and some not at all.
We don’t do any damage by merely showing them the model and asking if they might like to try it on, but we actually do harm if attempting to shove them into or through it — there is no way to push a square peg through a round hole without altering its shape.
It is, I suspect, far better to pick up the not-so-subtle hints that reveal when our interests for our child don’t jive with their own (see: “I don’t want to play”) and respect those feelings. This, of course, is different from the often repeated, “I don’t want to brush my teeth,” with which there can be no compromise.
I have discussed this type of thing with Nancy before whose children are older (one in college and one in high school). She says when you force them to be who they’re not, they don’t get a chance to find out who they are, and must accomplish this later (perhaps when they finally get some space of their own in college) to their detriment.
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying to find the mold that does fit them. The other night, my wife (an avid runner) ran something new by Parker.
“Hey Parker – there’s a track program I can sign you up for. They practice one night a week and once on the weekend. And then there are four meets. What do you think?”
“That sounds good. It will help me burn my energy off,” he said nonchalantly.
My wife and I looked at each other like sales reps who have just gotten a big time ‘yes’ and wanted to disappear before the client changed his mind.
Finding the right mold for the individual or bending the person to the mold? It’s not just a debate for rearing children but also developing employees. In both cases, I endorse the former approach because, often, forcing someone out of the comfort zone simply leaves them not wanting to play anymore.
Update: Parker now says he wants to play football. Go figure.