(Originally written Nov, 2015)
Today my daughter had a soccer game and made the winning goal while I wasn’t watching. In fact, none of us parents were watching.
We were entrenched in conversation about our homework frustrations when another parent interrupted to say, “Ava just made a goal” in a matter of fact tone. A few of us immediately cheered, but it was too little too late. She noticed we hadn’t cheered as raucously as goals earlier in the game by her teammates that we had actually witnessed. Her head fell right out of the game and right into self doubt mode – from joy to defeat, self defeat, in a split second.
Moments later, she started to struggle on the field. You could actually see the self doubt manifesting, effecting her play, she was near tears. This is a game she absolutely craves. “Put me in coach” is all she ever strives for. “Can I be forward? Can I be forward?” she repeats with fervor. “I’m going to make a goal this time,” is what she tells me every time she runs out on the field. In her first time playing soccer, she’s eager to catch her skills up to her teammates who have been playing longer, and that kid is learning quick – because she really really wants to.
When she made the game winning goal and not one of us saw it, confusion set in. She heard us parents laughing on the sidelines. We were laughing about a girl on the other team blocking one of our girls by reverse hugging our player behind her back to keep her blocked – totally illegal and totally cute. But with Ava at this point completely inside her head wondering why her performance wasn’t warranting the same raucous applause, she came running off the field in tears into my arms.
As a parent, you can handle this in one of two ways. You can lay on the expected sport tough talk from the sidelines, “Keep your head in the game!” I have somehow also adopted the chant, “TAKE IT!” as she heads forcefully towards the opposing team with possession of the ball, even though I know nothing of sports, specifically soccer, and I have never cheered from the sidelines for anything other than rock bands like a wailing groupie.
Or you can do what I did. When she told me she was crying because she thought we were laughing at her, I immediately told her in an irritated tone, “That’s ridiculous.” There was a subtle wide-eyed expression of disbelief and deflation that flooded her expression at my words. The expression that just realized her feelings were ridiculous, not to mention she hates it when I speak to her in a disciplinary tone in front of other people.
At the time, I repeated that it was ridiculous that she thought any of us would laugh at her. Of course none of us would laugh at her. As a rational adult, it’s nothing but logic. But for her, the kid that loves the game and wants to play every second possible, it was a blow.
Within moments, I felt uncomfortable with my tough talk. I operate with little sympathy with my child’s tears. The kid cries a lot. She’s sensitive, I’m reminded by my husband frequently. He says he was a sensitive child. Being that my husband’s biggest complaint about me is that I’m not nurturing and am “always” gruff, I find myself running on empty in the patience department with the constant tears. But if I could have been quiet enough in my head, if I could have shrugged off any there-but-unspoken peer parenting influences, if I could step off the tough talk sports expectation band wagon, I would have realized I was wrong – very wrong – to tell her that her feelings were ridiculous.
What I needed to tell her was how to handle those feelings of self-doubt, those worries that people are laughing at you. Lord knows I could have used a crap-ton of those lessons at her age that I didn’t get until I was grown up enough to figure it out for myself. I’m not letting a lifetime of paranoid self-doubt happen to my kid.
Later in the evening, after we both cried our eyes out watching Pixar’s “Inside Out”, which consequently is all about feelings and the inspiration of my decision to speak out, I said to my baby girl, “I have to tell you something.”
She paused to look me in the eye anticipating what secret I was about to reveal.
“Remember today when I said it was ridiculous that you thought we were laughing at you at soccer?”
She nodded as she said, “Yeah, I was being dumb.”
My heart sank. Of course that’s what she’d get out of that exchange. Do I think my child is dumb? Obviously not. But did I act and say things that would make her believe that, despite my intentions of doing just the opposite? Yes. Yes I did.
I grabbed her hand and said, “You were not being dumb. I was. It was wrong of me to say what I said because your feelings are not ridiculous.”
Her little eyebrows popped up as the slightest surprised grin appeared in the corners of her mouth.
I continued, “The next time you feel like people are laughing at you or talking about you, I want you to stop and ask yourself, ‘Are they really laughing at me, or is it my imagination?’ If it’s your imagination, then you know you can carry on without feeling bad about anything. And if they really are laughing at you, I want you to ask yourself, ‘Is what they think of me more important than what I think of myself?’
She lit up with a new found understanding of a perplexing math problem, “Ohhhhhhh.”
Now I am not saying I’m anything close to mother of the year. I’m fairly confident that my trophy is not in the mail. But I can attest that her mood shifted and her spirit became lighter. It was as if her confidence came out from a time-out behind a closed door room in one 60-second exchange.
If I have learned anything from this “What We Learn From Our Kids” lesson, it is to, whenever possible, consider our child’s experience rather than our own. All of us want the best for them. We all do the best we can to give them just that. But even in our best intentions, we accidentally have the exact opposite impact of what we intend when we act in the haste of the day, in our impatience of more than we can take, in our own insecurities and pressures. We can’t undo the damage we do to our kids, but we can say we are sorry and try to be better next time. They may be kids, but they’ll respect that, and more importantly, that will be the imprinted core memory that glows bright when they need it most.