I don’t normally attend my son’s baseball games. There’s a reason why. But this year my husband’s coaching my daughter’s softball team, so I’m on baseball duty.
My son is 9, and until recently Jack hasn’t been interested in sports, to my immense relief. Because unless the Yankees are playing in the World Series in 1999 and I’m watching it in a bar with my favorite people, sports are not my thing. I can throw a frisbee and hit a wiffle ball and I know all the swimming strokes. But I never felt confident on the field or the court. Maybe it was getting hit on the knuckle by a baseball in second grade, or the fact that I only ever scored 1 point in my entire 7th grade basketball career. Or the fact that I came in last at every swim meet I ever competed in. And when you don’t make the varsity soccer team as a senior in high school even though your cousin is the coach, it’s time to move on. But this isn’t about me.
So now I’ve got this kid — my September boy who started school young and has always been addicted to quiet things like trains, planes and systems. Suddenly he can run faster than his friends, and he wants to play basketball, baseball and knee hockey. I’m both relieved, because I want him to be well-rounded and healthy, and scared, because all I ever did was fail at these things.
When he was 4 we signed Jack up for T-ball with his 4 closest friends. It did not go well. He was bored, he didn’t understand the game, didn’t have any skills whatsoever, and he had no interest in learning. I tried to explain that baseball is a system, just like trains and airports; you just need to watch and practice. You won’t be good immediately, it’s ok.
None of this worked – he still didn’t want to play. And at the time I thought, if he doesn’t start playing now, when he decides to play at age 9, he’ll be way behind everyone else, and he’ll get frustrated and quit. (Like I did.) But we didn’t sign him up again until he asked. Because with Jack, you do not apply pressure.
Now, 5 years later, it’s his second season in the Little League minors. He loves the game and he couldn’t wait for the season to start. But what amazes me most is, he understands the game. He watches it intently. He knows where to make every play. He calls to the catcher to watch out for base-stealing. And he’s dying to play 2nd base because “that’s where I’ll get the most balls.”
He’s not like me.
So being on the sidelines of these games is, for me, mostly a social event. Sometimes I remember to pay attention or a friend nudges me when he’s at bat. Because when I pay attention, I start to care. Really care. I scream when the pitcher catches a grounder and makes the play at first. I holler when they steal third. I cheer on kids who drop the ball because I can see they’re upset. I ask for the pitch count and the ball count and some other numbers I don’t totally understand but seem important. I insist I don’t really care that much, because they’re just 9. But I do.
It was during one of those times of caring so very much that I probably made my biggest parenting mistake. Jack’s at bat – his first of the game. He stepped into the box, took a few practice swings, and then stood there through 7 pitches. He didn’t swing once. He has a very good eye. But he didn’t swing once.
And then I did something I really shouldn’t have done. I walked right into the dugout and said to him, “You gotta swing at the strikes. You can’t get a hit if you don’t swing.” I said it in a positive tone, hoping to convey a “you can do this” confidence. And then walked away.
There’s a reason the dugout is separated from the bleachers by a fence that latches, and that reason is the stupid things parents like me do.
Moments later I was so angry with myself, realizing how awful it must have felt for him to hear that from me. But I didn’t want him to miss his chance to hit that ball. I couldn’t stand watching him not even try, or be afraid — I wanted only for him to succeed. I couldn’t stand by silently and let him fail.
So I tried to make it better. Before his next at-bat, I tapped him on the shoulder and smiled the smile I know helps him – the one that says I love you no matter what and after this game is over I will be here. And I said: “I know you know this, but you can only get a hit if you swing. Are you scared?”
“It’s ok, you don’t need to be. It’s all good. You will be fine either way.”
And at his next at-bat, he swung.
AGE APPROPRIATE PLAY FOR AGES 7-12