It's another cold night at the baseball fields. It's almost 8 p.m., and I am starving. My son, Toby, who is almost 11, is pitching tonight. I hate it when he pitches. Even though it's what he wants more than anything, I hate it. My stomach is in knots the whole time. I am trying to stay politely engaged in the conversations that the other parents are having, but I can't focus. I can see Toby's shoulders are tensing up. I can see him take a deep breath and try to calm down. I can also see my husband, the assistant coach, pacing back and forth on the side of the field. He has given up on trying to look laid-back when Toby pitches. I try to remind myself of what really matters. If he pitches well, he gains some temporary confidence and may pitch better the next time. But, if he walks batter after batter, he gets something else. He gets to learn how to fail.
It seems to me that during the past decade, there have been endless discussions about how we as parents are failing to let our kids fail. I work as a family therapist in a fairly affluent area of New Jersey, and I spend a great deal of my time trying to convince the parents whom I work with that not only is it OK for their children to experience bumps in the road, it is essential. Although I think most parents I work with agree with me intellectually, emotionally it is just too hard for them to endure watching their children be disappointed.
The interesting thing is, this is not how we were raised. Most parents of my generation -- I was born in 1972 -- grew up in families where their parents played a much smaller role in their lives than we play in our own children's lives. Whether it was a conflict with a friend or a problem with a teacher, most of us were expected to solve the problem on our own. Our parents did not have instant email access to all of the important adults in our lives. Parents today seem to feel a great deal of pressure to navigate things for their children. Parents worry that their children will lose confidence if things don't go their way. The problem is, the only way that children turn into confident young adults is by learning to get back up after they fall flat on their faces.
In baseball, my boys have to navigate everything themselves. When Toby first starting playing baseball in first grade, I once heard his coach raise his voice at Toby. I froze and gave my husband a horrified look. "It's OK," he told me. "That's what coaches do." And it was OK. Toby didn't even seem to notice and his beloved Coach Jamie has been one of the strongest influences in his life over the past four years. When Toby has wanted a chance to pitch over the years, we have always let him know that he has to speak up and ask his coach. Toby is a very reserved kid, and it took him four years to get up the nerve, but this season he finally was brave enough to approach his travel coach about pitching at the next game. We got an email from this coach the next day that said: "You got a great kid who will be a great man someday! You should be very proud!" Proud is not even the word. We were over the moon.
When my kids first started playing baseball, I just didn't get it. I grew up as one of two daughters in a family that had no interest in sports. I also grew up in the peace and love environment of Greenwich Village in the 1970s and didn't see the value of competition. Also, I thought baseball was really, really boring. But now I see how wrong I was. By playing baseball, my kids learn to be disappointed. A lot. There are plenty of times they strike out, and they can't just walk off the field when that happens. A few weeks ago when Toby was pitching, the ump was making bad call after bad call. Even the coach of the other team was surprised. Toby began tensing up -- he was shaken. But after a quick pep talk from his dad, he kept going. He had no choice. I realize now that this kind of experience is priceless for him.
When I was growing up, my mother had a favorite story she would tell me or my sister when things weren't going our way. The story was about when the roof rack slid off the top of our car on the West Side Drive at the very beginning of a long family trip. The roof rack contained almost all of our belongings for that trip, as our family car at the time was a red Volkswagen Bug. My mom always would recount how a lovely policeman pulled over and helped my parents strap the roof rack back on top of our car with some rope, and we went on our way. What seemed like a total disaster actually was not a total disaster, and we moved forward on the road because we had no choice. Growing up, needless to say, I thought this was the most annoying story in the world. Now I understand that this story is brilliant and that everyone needs a story like this. I am grateful to have one.
For my boys, playing baseball is like having the roof rack fall off the top of the car night after night. And my mother, the teller of the brilliant roof rack story, is not here to cheer them on. She died almost two years before Toby was born. She died the night of September 11th, 2001, after a long battle with her health that started when I was younger than both of my children are now. She died after a day when I watched the city where I grew up fall apart in front of my eyes. It was horrendous, but I survived it. I never needed that roof rack story so much. And I know, some day, my boys will need that kind of resilience as well. Thank goodness for baseball.