Watching Your Kids Fail: What Baseball is Teaching Me About Parenting

I read a great article on kids sports and parenting at Slate yesterday subtitled, “How baseball encourages bad parenting – and how you can support your kids on the diamond without driving them crazy.” I read this article thinking that this guy was in my head. Both of my kids are playing a ton of baseball right now because a slew of rain-outs has compacted the season. Dickerson is seeing the ball pretty well:

“His son was pitching. Mine was batting. When my son fouled off the first pitch, the father was gleeful. When the second pitch was called a ball, he questioned the umpire. After a called strike, he roared: “He can’t hit you.” Impressive—he was trying to intimidate a 10-year-old batter. I wanted my son to get a hit to shut him up, or maybe a line drive foul to do so more directly. In the end, my son lined out to the shortstop. In the heat of competition, I was ready to make that guy’s folding chair into a bowtie for him. He was an ass. But on the drive to 7-Eleven for the traditional post-game Slurpee, I had a creeping revelation. What if I was that guy?

After all, I was pretty invested in my own son’s game. If I hadn’t been, red-chair dad wouldn’t have irritated me so. I started to catalog my own sins. I had cheered hard when my son threw a key strike; the dad of the kid at the plate probably thought I was a jerk. When my son was at bat, sometimes I yelled “good eye” to compliment him for not swinging at an obvious ball. But sometimes I did this for the benefit of the umpire, who had called a ball bouncing off the plate a strike. When an umpire called a boy safe at second who was out by a distance that could be seen from space, I yelled “What?” so loudly that everyone stopped to look at me. Was I becoming the dreaded Baseball Dad?

My wife and I have talked all season about how difficult it is to watch our kids struggle in athletics. It’s funny, too, because I think neither one of us really cares about how they perform. I don’t care if my kids never get into sports – they could bail tomorrow and it wouldn’t bother me one bit. What I care about is that their failures in kid’s sports causes them emotional pain. Let your kid say, “I feel like I’m not good at anything,” to you a few times and see if that doesn’t turn you into a monster.

Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable as a parent than watching this little person for whom you would literally lay down in traffic struggle and fail and experience all of the heartache and loss of confidence that comes with sports. I heard a wise man say that one day you’ll wake up as a parent and long for the days when you could heal most hurts with a hug or a band-aid. I’m there. When your kid struggles and fails on the field there is usually nothing a parent can do. When your kid strikes out for the tenth straight time, or makes the losing out, or gets pulled halfway through the first inning you just want to be able to help them, you know? Take away some of the hurt. Yet, nearly every article I’ve ever read about the subject says don’t do it. Dickerson offers really good advice.

Excessive behavior is embarrassing to your child, it’s embarrassing to yourself, and it teaches your child all the wrong lessons about sportsmanship, character and grace. But even if you’re not risking those outcomes, there is a challenge to finding the line between unconditional love and intensity. Even if you stop short of acting like the horrible parent, there’s a finer line to walk.  You don’t want to smother the experience for them with too much engagement. It’s their game—just as it’s their life… Don’t quiz kids about the game immediately after it’s over. It puts too much on them when they’re still processing the experience or finally taking a break from the pressure of it. Let them bring it up.

And if you do talk about the game, put a limit to it. One parent never talks about the game once he and his daughter have left the field. I can’t handle that, so I try to squeeze it in between 7-Eleven and home. Once we’re out of the car, I’m done talking. It’s up to the kids to bring up their sports after that.

It’s their life. It’s their struggle, and struggle is the seedbed of virtue. Little league is one of the few things in a child’s life where it’s really okay to say, “This is your thing, buddy. I’m not going to interfere. I’m here to support you and I’ll help you with whatever you want, but this is your deal.” We have to let them navigate it. What matters most is that we are present, and that we don’t try and rescue them when things go wrong – no matter how excruciating that is for the parent.

Dickerson cites another great kids-sports article about nightmare parents that I’ve run into several times on blogs. The article surveys hundreds of college athletes about their little league experience. They are asked, “What is your worst memory of little league or high school athletics.” The overwhelming response was, “the ride home with my parents.” When asked what’s the best thing their parents said the most common answer was, “I love to watch you play.”

I had a friend point me to this advice and it’s pretty much all I say on the ride home. “I love to watch you play.” I also tell them that I’m more proud when they strike out than when they get a hit, because it takes a lot more courage to stand up there and swing and miss than it does to stand in there knowing that you’ll get a hit every time. Mostly I try to find other things to talk about and ways to make them laugh. I really hope I’m not jacking this up. I know that nothing makes me do stupid things like vulnerability.

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