When is it appropriate to let the child make a decision of importance? I’m fairly clear that as the parent, I have the final say in whether something happens or not, but when and how do I start to let the kid make some important decisions of his own? Perhaps the most critical decision of a teen’s life is what happens after high school and if there’s no experience there because the ‘rents make all the decisions, then what happens?
The question raised it’s head – again – with Youngest, who’s entering fourth grade. He was playing right field on a local little league all-star team in a double-elimination tournament several weeks ago, and the team was forced to play four games in four straight July days with no breaks. He came off the field at the end of the first game, limping, and we noticed a limp after the second game as well. By the afternoon before the third game, he came up to me limping and we treated it immediately with ice and ibuprofen; that third game went well for his bat but again, he came home with a slight limp. Because this was now the fourth game in four straight days, our plan was to have a quiet day with a lot of rest and that’s the way the day went. The problem arose, however, during the pregame warmups as he was shagging fly balls in the outfield and as I watched, I could see – in a single instant – when the look on his face showed that something had definitely gone wrong. Since the coach was still busy with the other outfielders, he limped over to me and said that the knee hurt too bad to play. Let’s be frank about what went through my mind. The team only fielded ten players for nine positions, so there was no bench of which to speak and where would leave the rest of the team in 90+ degree heat? Should I pull the Knute Rockne/Vince Lombardi take one for the team speech? Honestly, what are people going to think of the boy for not going through and of me as well?
As I looked at him, I quickly considered that I’d seen him play in the past with blistered feet and a shiner from taking a ball in the face. He’d also been limping for three straight days with no qualms and while 98% of kids whine about little things, he’d come through some big ones without a whine. As we talked with the coach, his options were to play in entirety, not at all or at least play for two innings and then sit. The boy was clear that he couldn’t play and when I briefly revisited the question again, he was certain that he could no longer play. The other aspect is that this is a child who’s playing for love of the game. While there’s certainly responsibility to the team, there’s also a responsibility to protect that love of the game. There’s no pay and to make a 9 year old play through even worse pain when he’s clearly played through some already would only damage that desire to play further. I looked at the coach and confirmed what the boy said and like that, he was on the bench with ice on his knee.
So how do you handle such a situation? There’s a fine line between understanding when to demand more of the kids and when to step back. How do they respond to pressure? What else is at stake for the options? Are they prone to needless whining? If they actually get their way, are they giving up something else that they obviously like? Life can be damned hard and what our kids will have to face in the future is likely to be harder than ours and we do a disservice by letting them slide or coddling them. The kids learn that they can manipulate us to avoid unpleasant situations and once they’re in the world, they’ll run into someone who is going to hand them their heads. Yet if we repeatedly force the situation, then they’re defeated and learn that they have no ability to make an independent decision; there’s value in learning how to make a decision. I’d like to enumerate any number of easily remembered bulletpoints, but it simply comes down to your own sense of the child and the situation at hand. And like many times with children, there are probably going to be miscalls – and God knows that I’ve made them.
As of now, Youngest is out of all running and impact sports for the near future as the orthopod to whom he was referred found legitimate damage to the knee. The kid made the right call and frankly, I’m proud of how he handled the situation. But that doesn’t mean that he gets a pass for the household chores.