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I Ruined My Child's Fun. Again.

Yesterday I did something I want to take back. I ruined the fun of my 8 year old when we were playing in the driveway. I wish I could say this is the first and last time that will happen, but I’ve done this before. I always do this. I played sports as a kid and I loved nothing more than practicing by myself in the driveway, making up drills and challenges that were fun but stretched me beyond my immediate skill level. My youngest son isn’t like me. He likes playing sports, but doesn’t really want to get better. He says he does, but he doesn’t have that knack for practice that will lead to actual improvement. He has natural ability so he’s more than capable, but he tends to stop quickly when things get a little tough.

We were playing hockey and I challenged him to stickhandle a little bit each time before he returned a pass. I thought it would make it more fun while also helping him improve. He didn’t see it that way. What he saw was that I turned his play time into a dexterity test and he wasn’t having it. Rather than realize my mistake, I turned it on him and scolded him for wanting to quit so quickly. Predictably, this only made things worse and he began to pout and stomped his foot.

I ended up being the one who quit and told him I didn’t want to play with him when his attitude was like that. I maintained my innocence all night until I picked up a book to read before bed. I’d started this book last year but stopped in the middle and read some other things in between, so I had no idea where I left off when I opened it. The chapter was on over-parenting and the damage the lack of free play can do to a child’s ability to solve problems later in life. As I read, it slowly dawned on me that my son did nothing wrong and I was the reason the fun got ruined. I carved that mental note into my brain to stop doing that to him, but couldn’t read any further because of how upsetting it was to understand how dead wrong I was.

I want my son to do the things I look back on with pride. I’m proud of how much I learned and improved by practicing all the time, so I want him to experience that. Here’s the mistake: He isn’t me. Yes, I should keep teaching him the lessons I learned from my experiences, but forcing him to learn them by doing the same things is wrong. He doesn’t love sports like I do, so asking him to do drills when all he’s trying to do is play with his dad is misguided and stupid.

I’m going to try again today after work and this time, we’re going to play how he wants. I’m going to have to keep reminding myself that I can’t package up my experiences, lay them at his feet, and say “here, some of what you need to know is in this box.” He’s 8 and full of opinions. He’ll do it his way whether I like it or not and my job is to teach him how to learn from his actions, not to just repeat mine.

I’d like to share an excerpt from a commencement speech referenced in the aforementioned book I was reading, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt:

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

This passage speaks to the value of the personal experiences that occur organically throughout our lives. It’s also more evidence of how little control I really have over the lives of my kids. I can guide them up to a point, but most of the things I’ve learned have come from the things I experienced over time, many of which were painful mistakes. Letting go of control is a hard fought concept, and I hope someday I figure out how to do it.