Many things from our childhood stay with us. As a kid, I was never into sports. In addition to being an only child, with no dad, I had very poor vision, that was undiscovered until I was ten, and not corrected until I was thirteen. As you might guess, I was the last chosen for any team. I never ran, and hated all forms of ball games. I pouted, frowned, shuffled, cried, and was generally a complete pill on any ‘team’ my p.e. teachers put together. I thought that Dodge Ball was a cruel hoax invented by evil teachers, and I found many animals in the clouds while I was standing in hot outfields, tuning out people yelling, “GET THE BALL!!!” On my own time, though, I learned to be a kid daredevil, climbing up scaffolding and defying death in many stupid ways.
Today the kids and I decided to play a bit of freeze tag, and then baseball. Our baseball is a tennis ball, and our bat is this broken orange thing that bends too much and is an over-sized plastic relic, really. Nonetheless, I enjoy these outings, and have a lot of fun. I get to feel like a good step-parent, and maybe it helps me feel a teeny, tiny bit better about not playing with my own kids more when they were little, being too concerned with housework or laundry.
Everything was great until my ten year old stepson yelled out, “LEE! YOU CAN’T EVEN CATCH!” Suddenly, I was nine again, being taunted by the kids on the kickball or baseball team, and I felt a lot of the same old rejected- loser feelings, and anger. I wanted to stop playing, to just go inside and say “screw it”. It was an immature impulse, and my adult sensibilities eventually won out, but it’s funny how some things stick with you, inside you. Dormant sparks of pain can be easily rekindled. I was surprised. It’s true. My catching and hitting are still pretty poor, and on some days these ‘skills’ are completely missing. I remember, though, that everyone seemed to be a critic and offer their opinions on my lack of ball-handling skills when I was a kid. I hated it, them, and mostly myself. I was always tough on myself anyway. I expected to be able to do things the older kids and adults could do, and nobody could convince me that I had to learn it over time. I was obviously a defect. At home, one step-dad or another was harshly correcting me on how to properly sit on the toilet or yelling at me for something, but from those male ‘father figures’, there was no love, and I never shed a tear when they and my mom would inevitably break up.
It took a lot of time before I got even remotely interested in any kind of sport. I was nineteen. It started with biking, hiking, and then tennis. I didn’t ever get good at tennis, but I really enjoyed it, and still do.
I have learned over time to be happy with playing, even without playing well- for the most part. But somehow, hearing a kid criticize me brought up all these old feelings of worthlessness, all because of not catching a tennis ball lobbed at me. Why?
Why should it matter or even bother me?
When we are kids, we are like wet cement, or little flowers. We are fragile, easily molded, or trampled. The things we experience shape our entire lives. If the majority of our experiences are positive, encouraging, and loving, we tend to feel a lot better about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves, we are more confident, more likely to experience success, and that success fuels more likelihood of even more future success.
Some people have more natural pluck and resilience than others. Some might set out to resolutely prove their detractors wrong. Others believe the negative barrage, and live it out.
Interestingly, the things I was encouraged in were the very things I became the best at, but deep inside, I have always felt as though most people were more grown up and more competent than I. I have learned a bit about not comparing myself to others, but it’s still a challenge.
So, parents, coaches, friends, step-parents, grandparents, teachers; all of us: please, don’t criticize, tease and bully others. Don’t make people feel bad because they lack a certain skill. Don’t make such a big deal about it if someone you know and ‘love’ doesn’t perform a task at your level. Teach them, or let them be themselves. Not everyone is a natural athlete. Not everyone likes sports. Some of us like to read, write, and cook. Maybe, with love and acceptance, and a bit of encouragement, these people will excel in what THEY love. Help them discover what that is, and remember that the seeds you are planting today will keep sprouting, with deepening roots, forever. Kids are, well- kids. Stop trying to control their every move. Remember how powerful a gruff voice can be. Parents, correct and discipline with love as the motivation, not some twisted concept of creating someone in your own image, or worse, trying to create someone you wish you could have been.
Kids need time to grow, to learn, and to just be kids. Let them. Be patient. Accept them as they are.
Go enjoy every moment of the summer. Kick off your polished shoes and just relax with your family. Laugh, and remember what it’s like to be a kid.