Forcing my child to try out for an All-Star baseball team, knowing he couldn’t make it, started easier than I planned.
After a Little League season in Oakdale, where my 11 year-old was a mediocre fielder and hitter on a team that won exactly one game, I shoved him onto the diamond last week saying, “Just have fun and see what happens!”
He didn’t even balk ... until I saw him flushed and alone before warm ups; the sleek boys wouldn’t play catch with the lumpy kid. Ouch.
As I predicted, the first three pop flys they fired at him squirted out of his glove. His hits didn’t make it out of the infield, and you could time his base-running with a sun dial.
As he stood in line for the next fielding drill, I could feel his eyes on the back of my head. I pretended to be on the phone, knowing if we made eye contact he’d violate the only unforgivable sin in the sport: there’s no crying in baseball.
My son is a good guy who aces school and plays well with others, so what did he do to deserve this premeditated humiliation?
Like art movements, I’m aware of trendy, pop-parenting styles; but I didn’t follow any until I heard the latest. Back in 2009, writer Lenore Skenazy famously let her 9 year-old ride the New York subway alone. She quickly got labeled the “worst mother in America.” Then Skenazy doubled down by writing the book that started the “Free Range Kids” movement.
I found it interesting, maybe, because I’ve always laughed at so-called helicopter parents, forever hovering around their precious ones.
Months later, in 2011, Amy Chua wrote “Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in the Wall Street Journal. She was taking a satirical swipe at traditional, crazy-strict “Chinese” rearing practices where “academic achievement reflects successful parenting.” She wrote the book that launched the “Tiger Mother” trend that mocks the Western idea that a child’s self-esteem is everything.
That walks us up to last year’s Ted Talk, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth that has taken over education and inspired me to feed my son to superior athletes and, essentially, arrange for his failure.
Duckworth says successful people got that way not through talent but by overcoming obstacles, something my son has never experienced.
Here in the comforts of suburbia, my son’s biggest disappointment so far in life has been getting stiffed by Santa on a million-piece Lego set one Christmas. This is how snowflakes are created, and I’m not having it.
Duckworth’s “Perseverance” curriculum is all over the schools now with students being praised only for hard work (no more “you’re smart” stuff) while trying to cultivate a “never-give-up” culture on campus.
Districts around Sacramento even include grades on “grit” and “gratitude” in report cards, giving an “A” for almost always, “O” for often, “S” for sometimes and “R” for rarely “showing behaviors that support learning.”
Duckworth gives vague advice for growing grit like “practice positive self-talk” and “find a mentor,” but I’m sure she’d approve of the unwinable, Kobayashi Maru test I set up for my offspring.
Though the wife and I exposed our son to competition early, it somehow seemed to reinforce the wrong behaviors. He picked out a market lamb for 4-H, trotted it around the ring at the county fair, and placed. Same thing with the school spelling bee and county science event – no real effort, easy victories.
I saw my chance to introduce adversity through baseball, a humbling sport when you’ve got talent; a long, sniffling ride home from tryouts with a guilty-feeling father if you don’t.
He was mostly mad at himself for his mistakes and later that evening I heard him say, “Mom, at least I wasn’t the worst one out there.”
I can’t picture who he could be referring to, but let’s credit him with practicing positive self-talk and I’ll be his mentor, by default.
My vindication came a couple days later, when he tossed my glove in my lap and said, “I can’t leave it like that, Dad. I’ve got to do better,” and pointed outside. He’s got grit, pluck, determination … traits we never would have known were in him until I set up a letdown. With love.
Steve Taylor, a resident of Oakdale, is a behavior analyst. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.