As a parent you want your child to succeed. You also want them to thrive and develop good personality traits while doing so. Sometimes you have to make a choice though: succeed or thrive. While you as a grown up know what you’d prefer for both your child and yourself, as they start to grow up you know you need to let them make the decision for themselves.
My son is — bli ayin hara — an exceptionally wonderful individual. Weekly — and this is no exaggeration, in fact it’s probably closer to daily — we get phone calls, stopped in the street, messages, emails, notices about something special/kind/sweet/sensitive/thoughtful he has done. My husband and I have no idea how we got so blessed to have such a child but we did. It has nothing to do with us; he simply came out this way.
He’s not perfect; what kid is? He’s a regular kid who fights with his younger brother, leaves his smelly socks on the floor and constantly loses items of clothing, backpacks and the like. But he’s a really, really, truly great son.
When he first started doing extra-curricular activities, he chose judo. He had the most amazing coach who believed in him and encouraged him. He also had a natural flair for it; he easily mastered the technique and, with great coaching he thrived and succeeded. But what impressed me most about the coach was not how he was with my son (who found it relatively easy) but with every.single.child in his class.
Now this wasn’t a regular class. This was a class where every parent sent (and still sends) their kid with a whole slew of issues. There’d be one screaming, another one bothering as many kids as he could and still another one jumping up and down just because he could. Dan (the judo coach) didn’t “deal” with these kids, he simply worked with them. Watching Dan – okay, who granted is an extra special coach – at these classes was possibly one of the best lessons in education any teacher-in-training could ask for.
Dan understood and fully accepted that every kid – irrespective of ability or personality – deserved a chance. At the same time, somehow (and I really don’t know how) he was able to ensure this did not overwhelm the teaching of the class or hinder the other kids. Hence my kid – and all the kids in the class – thrived and succeeded. And it was great.
But then after a few years, my child decided that since all his friends were getting into (let’s call it football for now) football, he was going to as well. He wasn’t a natural but he loved playing with his friends. He joined the activity after school and worked so hard that he got Most Improved Player award that year. When they had the league selection we weren’t sure if he would get in. But he did. And he was so proud of himself. He definitely didn’t find it easy but it was fun, a great workout, there was a wonderful camaraderie going on and we were delighted at the potential the league would offer him, while knowing he wouldn’t be the champion player. But we didn’t care about that. At. All. And neither did he.
Despite his best efforts he didn’t improve all that much. But still he worked at it. Still he tried. Still he didn’t give up. And that made us proud. But the coach – and yes, it’s true this was a league and not just a fun after school sporting activity – put him down. Time.and.time.again. I had never seen a child go from being a confident, well-loved, popular and happy individual to a downtrodden, tearful, confused tween…at least when he was participating in the league. I am grateful this did not impact the rest of his life.
The disparity between judo and football was shocking. But I knew this was his battle to fight. I couldn’t run and mama bear my kid and say, “that’s it, you’re out of here” (much as I so very much wanted to). Plus my husband believed he should try to “toughen it out” in preparation for the army and other future life challenges.
A year of this went by. He stuck it out for AN ENTIRE YEAR. At 10 years old. He’d go to the practice or the game with full enthusiasm, hoping he’d practiced enough and would be “better” this week. He was the kid who took four bags of popcorn for all the boys to share on the bus ride over there and whose daddy never missed a game and even filmed it, facilitating teaching practices for the coach.
But apparently this wasn’t enough. His good nature, hard work, “average” playing got him insults; led him to sit on the bench for most of the game and had the coach single him out for “running like a 3 year old.”
This year, I was so silently hoping that– on his own – he would decide that this was just, pardon my French, crap. Yeah, he’s going to have hard times and life will throw difficulties and curveballs at him. But will he really benefit from being treated like this at 11 years old, in a sports league?
“Golan,” I said, “if you do the league this year you’ll have to miss out on seven weeks of baseball training and then American football after that.”
“I still choose the league,” he said.
It was, as I kept saying, his choice.
The first practice was good. I was relieved and a little surprised. The next day was a game. Not against another team, just a practice game within the league. This day broke my heart and finally broke him, which was devastating but also ultimately empowering.
“Mummy, I need a jacket because the coach said that we have to bring a jacket, as it will be cold when we leave the game tonight.”
“No you don’t,” I said, not knowing where his coat was anyway and it is still summer after all. “You won’t get cold; it’s still summer,” I added.
“Okay, but last year one of my friends got an award for being organized. Maybe I could get that award this year,” my beautiful boy suggested optimistically.
It broke me. He was so desperate for approval. I gave him my coat that was too big for him, rolled up the sleeves and whispered a little prayer.
He came home. He didn’t cry. But his lower lip was quivering. He was trying to be “strong” and not cry. And then he said the words I had so longed to hear because of a coach who instead of building up the kids to help them improve their game, somehow gets a kick out of putting them down.
“I don’t want to do the league anymore. I quit.”
And I suddenly realized at that moment how inaccurate that quote of “winners never quit” is. Because in that moment, my son won. He won because he persevered for a year even though he was made to feel small. He won because he kept trying to find ways to improve his game. He won because he wanted to make his teammates happy by feeding them popcorn. And he won because – unlike so many adults in horrible situations – he knew when enough was enough and actually acted on it.