I don’t like to think of myself as one of those parents. But when your seventh-grader looks at you with his big eyes and says, “Mom, I think you care more than I do if I make the basketball team,” it’s time for self-examination.
“I know it might seem that way,” I said. “But I just want you to be happy.”
Never mind that he was happy — performing in the school play, playing pick-up touch football, hanging out with friends — the problem was that all his pals were trying out. What if they made the team and he didn’t? And there was the exercise, too. Could I be blamed for valuing that?
So in the run-up to the tryouts I became frenzied. I suggested we hire a (Division 1) college player for a quickie brush-up. I contemplated going behind his back to explain to the basketball coach that he would miss part of the tryout because of play practice — not for lack of interest.
I’d been thinking about middle-school basketball for so long that by the time the tryouts arrived — without the benefit of the coaching that I was too ashamed to mention to my husband, or any secret conference with the coach — I was in a state of nervous exhaustion.
“Can I talk to you for a minute? I asked my son.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No,” I said. “I want to tell you how much I admire you as a person.” (He nodded; he’s heard this before.) “You’ll have a happy winter either way,” I continued, “but since you mentioned you did want to make it, we might as well give it our — I mean your — all.” (That’s exactly what he was planning to do, of course, minus the over-the-top behavior I had in mind.)
With New Year’s Eve staring me down, maybe it’s time to stop resolving to tweet more and focus instead on my parenting skills. Or maybe not.
Like imperfect parents everywhere, I sought validation from the crowd. And it’s with mixed emotions that I report it was actually hard to find a parent who hadn’t turned into a helicopter parent, if only for a brief flight, or nudged their child toward some activity or achievement for less than totally, let us say, admirable reasons.
Let’s start with Amy Nobile , coauthor of “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.” She showed up at her daughter’s horse show in Hingham wearing jodhpurs and a little blazer even though she would be nowhere near an animal. “What’s wrong with you?” her child’s godmother asked.
Alas, with complete disregard for Nobile’s own never-realized dreams, her daughter (now 8) gave up riding, leaving Nobile with nowhere to wear her riding gear. “But it’s so fun!” she told her child. “It’s not really fun for me,” the girl replied. “You’ll probably take it up another time,” Nobile concluded.
In Milton, Stacie Robbins confessed to getting more joy out of her 10-year-old’s football games than he does. She encourages him to keep playing, she admitted, because she loves the camaraderie with the other parents (and, oh yeah, he does enjoy the sport). “The parents are more a part of the team than the kids are,” she said, only sort of joking.
Nicole Jdey, of Walpole, confided that she’s more interested in her son’s Boy Scout merit badges than he is. “Mom, I’m only 11,” he says when she pushes him to quickly work his way up to Eagle Scout. “It will be beneficial for him in the long run,” she said. “An achievement — for both of us.”
As she hung out at a birthday party at Laser Quest, in West Roxbury, Gretchen Reynard admitted that she really, really wanted her 8-year-old to be in her church’s Nativity play. “He couldn’t care less,” she said. “But I know he’ll be happy if he does it.”
What drives parents? Nobile, the Hingham author and frustrated equestrian, engaged in a little analysis: “It’s Psych 101. I didn’t get to ride as a child and this is — or was — my chance.”
Carleton Kendrick , a Millis-based family therapist, and author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s,” had a similar take. “I have just seen far too many adults who vicariously live through their kids,” he said.
Wishing I’d never brought up my behavior with a professional therapist, I called Mark Hyman
, an author who’s written extensively about youth sports. He was slightly more forgiving, and saw
a range of reasons for caring, or over-
caring, as the case may be.
“Some [reasons] are more noble than others,” said Hyman, author of “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families,” and “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.”
“It’s possible to really be laboring under the impression that your kid really would have a good time,” he said. “It’s a mistake to discount that motive. I think that’s often the case — where the parent really does read the cues correctly and think they are putting the child in a situation where they will potentially meet new friends and all those lofty things we hope sports will build.”
I was nodding along, liking the way this was going. “But what I’ve written about [in my books] is less positive,” he said, “when the parent starts to view sports as a career path.”
Not to brag or anything, but I’ve never even fantasized about my son playing in the NBA.
With a weekend to endure between my son’s basketball tryouts and the posting of the team roster, I called my own mother, who always truly had my best interests at heart, so never engaged in behavior that required her to insist, “I just want you to be happy.”
“Do you think it’s because you didn’t make field hockey team in 10th grade?” she asked.
I didn’t make the field hockey team? Somehow I’d forgotten. I never liked the sport — all those people chasing you with sticks — but my friends were doing it, and in retrospect, I must have felt left out. Except I don’t recall that, and to this day, two of my best friends are from high school. So I think things worked out, but who knows where I might be today if Miss Santoro had called out “Teitell” that day.
But that was many years ago. It was Monday, the day of the big reveal. I’m proud to report that I stopped myself from wishing my son good luck, and instead said “have fun at play practice.” When he called after school, I didn’t ask.
“So how was your day,” I inquired casually (as if). “Good,” he said, adding almost as an after thought, “I made the team.”
Time to start practicing lay-ups.