I will start this blog with a simple disclaimer: I am not a parent. And I do not play one on TV. That said, I have spent lots of time around kids, especially my six nieces and nephews. And I am also an assistant to Mark Johnson as he navigates the complicated world of raising a teenage daughter.
If you are a parent, you may read this and think that I have no idea what I am talking about. Or maybe it will give you something to think about. At least I hope it will.
Being a parent is a tough job. There is no doubt about it. Kids do not come with an instruction manual. Everyone just tries to do the best they can. Each of us has our own set of life experiences that influences how we handle stress, solve problems, and express our needs and desires. And each of us has our own parents as an example.
If your parents were too strict, then maybe you will end up being more lenient with your kids. Or maybe you will be strict with your kids because it is how you grew up and you are comfortable with it. If your parents hovered over your every decision, then maybe you will try to back off and let your kids make their own choices and be more independent.
There are so many factors influencing parenting styles, it would be impossible to cover them all here. But there is one thing that most parents seem to have in common. The desire to teach their children a lesson. Think of how many times you have said to yourself, or out loud to your child, that he or she has to learn this or that. It seems like learning lessons is a full time job for kids. And teaching those lessons is generally agreed to be one of the core functions of being a parent.
There is no doubt that kids are learning lessons every day. I just wonder if they are learning the lessons that their parents intend for them to learn. Playing sports is a great example of a situation where kids are put in a position to learn some lessons about teamwork, hard work, dedication, sportsmanship and many other things.
Today I went to my niece's softball game. By the time I got there, she was already out of the game due to an injury. She had jammed her finger in the warm ups and after playing half of the first inning she decided that she couldn't keep playing. Unfortunately, she decided this right before she was supposed to go up to bat and it caused a bit of an incident. By the time I got there, it was over. But it definitely left an impression on my niece. When I talked to her after the game, she was pretty upset and felt like she had disappointed everyone.
"You made the right decision to leave the game," I said with encouragement.
"Not everyone thinks so," she told me. At first I thought she was talking about the coach or some of her team mates.
"Well, everyone who matters will support you," I told her.
"Not my Dad," she said. "He thought I should stay in the game. Now he's going to be mad at me."
Apparently, her Dad wanted her to stay in the game and he said that her injury wasn't a big deal. I am not a doctor so I can't say if her injury was a big deal or not, but neither can her Dad. I am sure he felt like he was teaching her a lesson by trying to make her stay in the game and tough it out. He probably thought it would build her character and make her a stronger person. Or maybe he thought that she needed to learn to keep her commitment to the team.
I tried to convince her that her Dad wouldn't be mad and that I was sure he supported her decision, but she didn't seem to believe me. She looked so vulnerable and hurt. I wanted to tell her that it doesn't matter what her Dad says and she needs to do what she thinks is right. But it obviously was not my place to say that. So I just gave her a hug and told her that it would be ok and to try not to keep replaying it in her mind over and over again.
Today's situation reminded me of another story from a few years ago where I had a very similar experience with my niece and her parents. She was supposed to sing at a school concert and she really wanted one of the solo parts. She was in the 5th grade at the time and the teacher had given the solo parts to the 6th graders. He had told the 5th graders that they could still try out and he would consider them if there was not enough interest from the 6th graders.
Just days before the show, a few of the older kids dropped out and the teacher asked who wanted to pick up the solo parts. According to my niece, it was not a very fair process to decide how to distribute the remaining parts. The teacher did not even consider the 5th graders who had previously expressed an interest, even though he said that he would.
On the night of the show, we were gathering at my sister's house to go to the concert. I came over before my sister got home and my niece was all upset. She told me what happened and she showed me a letter that she had written to her parents to explain why she did not want to sing that night. She felt disrespected and she did not want to participate in the concert. I read the letter and thought she made a really good argument. It wasn't just a tantrum because she didn't get the solo part that she wanted. I was actually pretty impressed that she was able to express herself in that way.
When my sister came home, I told her about the letter but her response was "she made a commitment to sing. If she doesn't go to sing this time, she won't get considered for a solo next year. She has to learn to honor her commitments." Then she went into my niece's room and tried to explain this to her. Not surprisingly, my niece burst into tears and the conversation went on for so long that we all missed the show anyway.
That night, I kept thinking how much better it would have been if my sister had just let her stay home from that concert from the very beginning. In the end, my niece didn't sing that night. But only because she wore down the clock. It was so traumatic for her and for everyone else. What if the lesson she needed to learn that day wasn't to honor her commitments, but to stand up for herself when she feels she has been treated unfairly.
And today at the game, what if the lesson she needed to learn was not to tough it out and play through a minor injury, but to listen to her body and trust her instincts. Maybe the most important lesson she needed to learn is that her parents have her back and will support her in whatever she chooses to do, instead of judging or second guessing her decisions.
Obviously, her Dad was not trying to make her feel bad about leaving the game. Just like her Mom was not trying to make her feel bad by telling her she needed to go and sing at the concert. They were just being parents and doing what they thought was right. But it is easy to become so focused on doing the right thing and raising your child to be a responsible human being that you start to over-emphasize the "responsible" and under-emphasize the "human being".
Sometimes I wonder whether parents teach their kids these lessons because it is what they truly believe, or because they think these are the lessons that everyone expects them to teach their kids. Maybe it is like the emperor's new clothes. Everyone who joins the parent club has to pretend that they believe in hard work, dedication and commitment, when all they really want to do is let their kids eat junk food and lay around in their pajamas all day.
Maybe we all need to admit that the emperor is naked. And try to live our lives more authentically. Maybe that is the best thing we can do for our kids. And for ourselves.