The email from my son’s soccer coaches came just one week after the season started. The message was written in bold, eighteen-point font: “During the program we will like the parents to sit by the bleachers. Parents must stay off the track and the benches around the track.”
The message was intended to get the parents as far away from the central playing field at the local middle school as possible, moving them to the opposite side of a track and up a flight of stairs to the bleachers. The goal: to stop parents from distracting their kids and “making it difficult for the coach to grab their attention and teach the kids.”
A few weeks later when practices were moved to another field in town, the parents were immediately (and repeatedly) ordered to climb up to the top of a mountainous hill and watch from up high. I huffed to the top of the summit and watched grandparents and younger siblings struggle to the top alongside me. As the light faded earlier on this fall day, spotting my five year old became harder and harder by moonlight, even with the aid of the flickering generator-run field lights.
At the end of one session, I realized I had been spent the past hour watching the wrong scrimmage –-my son was on the other side of the field. Oh well, the other kids looked great, I thought, and reminded myself to make my son wear a neon shirt the next week so I could spot him from so far away. The only tricky part was when he asked me if I saw his goal. “You did great out there today!” came the safe, half-truthful response.
Coaches of youth athletic teams want parents to sign their kids up, deliver their checks and then disappear behind walls—wooden and steel doors, sheets of plexiglass, row upon row of bleachers. This isn’t for the kids; it’s to keep the parents at bay so that when their children fail or fall (which they will), they can do so without parents rushing in to help. That’s why they wear helmets and pads, after all – to soften the brutality of their falls.
When my youngest son started playing ice hockey this year, I realized how this sport is the perfect antidote to modern helicopter parenting and to the widespread instinct to step in to “help” your child and make everything feel better. Ice hockey is also a perfect metaphor for how life will treat your children in your absence—it will plunge them into rough terrain they are unprepared for, it will rip the balance right out from under them and if they want to get off the ice (or the proverbial train) they’ll have to figure out how to skate back to an open door.
As my five year old stepped onto the ice on wobbly legs (having had one winter of skating lessons the previous year) I held my breath and tried to urge him into a glide with my thoughts, sheer hope and a little prayer. BOOM. He hit the ice. BOOM. BOOM. Other kids hit the ice. For the next 60 minutes, they flailed around, stumbled to stand, tripped in midrise, toppled on a turn, and seriously wiped out. There were devastating pitches and extreme plummets. I (mostly) swallowed my groans and tried to stop cringing each time my son body slammed a sheet of thick ice. WWE was looking like ballet compared to this.
From behind the twelve feet of boards and plexiglass my three year old called out to her sibling in distress, “Joshua, are you OK?” Each time he rose again; each time the coaches let the kids figure out how to pick themselves up.
Who does this to their kid? Instead of putting our kids on dry land, where gravity works to their advantage, the parents at the rink put their kids on razor-sharp blades on freshly cleaned (and very slippery) ice. In an alternate reality, this would be perverse form of child endangerment resulting in all kinds of court appointed interventions.
But an hour after his first ice hockey session, as my son came gliding towards the steel door, stepped off the ice and pulled off his helmet, I saw a face drenched in sweat but wearing a huge grin. I asked him if he had fun. “Oh yeah!” came the immediate reply. Gravity be damned, this kid knows how to fall–and how to rise on his own two feet. Which is precisely what he’ll need to know how to do as an adult. Next time I think I’ll sit inside at the café and have a hot cocoa.