There are moments when it’s entirely appropriate to rain fire and brimstone upon a kid or teen for behavior or stupidity, and there are other moments when it’s unnecessary because they’re raining it upon themselves. This typically happens in competitive situations when an error causes points to score and it’s especially likely – for many kids – when it involves a team sport and the letdown affects teammates as well. There are parents out there who will willingly take the kid to task for the error but it is, in most cases, needless and unnecessarily painful because any worthwhile kid is beating himself up for all of them.
Such was the case this entire baseball season for Youngest, whose team is providing ample opportunities for what can best be described as "character-building lessons". Decent pitching and hitting is wholly overwhelmed by poor fielding and a complete lack of understanding on what to do with that round white thing when it’s hit into the field. Dropped balls are treated as dead plays when they are actually as live as a hand grenade and easy outs are wrapped in tinsel and handed to the other teams as tickets that can be exchanged by opposing teams for more and more runs. Once that truck starts moving downhill, then it’s difficult to stop and eventually everybody climbs aboard as almost everything degrades.
With multiple kids, other responsibilities and two parents, it’s problematic getting to everything and I missed seeing a recent Saturday afternoon game. But I heard about it in glorious, gory detail in the kitchen as Youngest related one particular play in which he was involved and which allowed the winning run to score in the last inning. I could hear the embarrassment in his voice and even though it takes more than one person to make up a team, he blamed himself.
So what’s the best approach? Do I look for the bright side in every little thing and minimize the particular play? Or do I lose my cool and hammer the kid? God knows that I’ve heard plenty of parents through the years hammer their kids for a mistake. There’s ultimately no way to put lipstick on the pig so after hearing the story, I opted to simply stop preparing dinner and ask so what did you learn from this? What’s your lesson? And after stopping for a moment, he simply responded I have to know where the play is going to be made.
A similar scenario played out with Middle in an after-school conversation the other day. He has a teacher whose reputation is that he’ll challenge the kids and he apparently lives up to it, based upon what I hear. In class, the teacher posed an analogy for the Ottoman Empire with a $5 payoff to anyone who could get it right. Multiple kids took the stab and failed and Middle mouthed an answer to a neighbor, who then claimed it publicly as his own. It was also the correct answer and the neighbor took home $5. When Middle approached the teacher after class, he admitted that he’d seen Middle mouthing the answer to the other kid yet did nothing when it was claimed…so what did you learn from this? I inquired. Middle shook his head and acknowledged that he might as well take the shot at an answer, at a minimum. I agreed and noted that the teacher was also explicitly teaching him – Middle – a lesson that is invaluable even if it doesn’t come from a book.
Our job as fathers and parents is to prepare them for life, to help them learn to think for themselves and stand on their own and that’s not going to happen if we don’t stop and make them think. I’ve even walked through my own screwups and laid out the lessons that I should take from the situation, what my own father referred to as the Post Mortem. Giving them pep talks or dressing them down simply isn’t of much value unless they actually learn the lesson that should flow from their growing experiences.