Way back in the 70’s as a adolescent, I learned a valuable life lesson, one that I tried to practice in my own relationship with my two precious daughters as they were growing up: namely, the dangers of pushing kids too hard and too far.
I grew up with a special challenge. As fate would have it, I was one of the most uncoordinated and untalented “athletes” who ever passed through the intramural and school-sponsored sports programs of Russellville, Alabama – a bitter reality for a small-town Southern boy, and one rendered even more difficult by the fact I was the son of a stellar athlete. My father was an All-State high school football player who went on to complete college on a four-year football scholarship at Troy State Teachers College (now Troy University).
I was the ultimate athletic cipher. I knew it, my coaches knew it – and occasionally pointed it out in exasperation, often in front of the other coaches and kids during practice – and, deep down, I think that my parents knew it too.
Yet, my mother and father, who were otherwise excellent, diligent parents, insisted that I play football all the way from intramural to Varsity football. I always wondered if they thought that I eventually would throw some switch and metamorphose into some sort of gifted athlete.
The fact was that I was too short-legged to be a running back and too small to be a lineman. Yet, for some reason, my parents were unable to admit this.
Between my Dad’s obstinance on this particular issue and my mother’s Wages family mule stubbornness on just about every topic under the sun – well, they comprised a pretty formidable duo.
Indeed, Mom, in particular, was convinced that I was all talk and no action. And she had concluded, along with Dad, that my conspicuous athletic failure was a troubling harbinger of a indolent adulthood. Mom even resorted to invoking the name of someone in town who was born into a decent family but who, sadly, had never amounted to much of anything, flunking out of college and ending up in a menial job.
I’ll just use the name Charlie Whiteburg for purposes of illustration.
“Jimmy, you’re going to end up just like Charlie Whiteburg – all talk and no action! I am going to drive by the (place Charlie worked) some day and see you sweating and grunting alongside him in the summer heat!”
This particular guy was rather rotund and had a tendency, in Bob Hope fashion, to wear his pants well above his hips, almost up to his nipples.
In time, I unwittingly built him up in my mind into a sort of doppelganger. I’d occasionally conjure up images of my finishing high school, failing college and, in the end, looking just like poor, rotund Charlie, with my pants hiked well above my waist – an incorrigible flunky yoked to a menial, dead-end job for the rest of my life.
And, not all that surprising, I was frequently overcome by panic attacks for many years after that. And though I got that pretty much under control 30 or so years ago, I would still visit a counseling psychologist every so often to enhance my coping skills.
About 8 or 9 years ago, I was referred by a very close friend to a crackerjack therapist – a woman from an Orthodox Jewish background who grew up in Boston.
In the course of my therapy, I related my childhood fears of mutating into a Charlie.
“Jim,” she said, after about 6 weeks of visits, “I have built a very lucrative career dealing with Southern Protestant guilt and anxiety, and among all the clients I have ever dealt with, I have never encountered anyone who was served a bigger helping than you!”
We both got a hearty laugh out of that one.
Parents do their best – and I was fortunate to have two truly exceptional and accomplished parents – but based on my own experience with intramural and high school athletics, I vowed that I would try to give my kids as much leeway as possible and in every facet of their lives.
I didn’t always succeed because, after all, old habits die hard.
My oldest daughter decided to drop out of karate just short of her black belt. Her decision initially bothered me – a lot – and I initially gave her a bit of a dressing down about not finishing what she started.
But I thought about those seven MISERABLE years of football that my folks imposed on me, and I apologized. And, of course, neither she nor I ever evinced a moment of regret about her decision.
It was the same with soccer for both my daughters. After a couple of years they had their fill, and I readily assented to their dropping out.
And both ended up finding their own passions and ended up embarking on happy, fulfilling lives.
You can’t mold children in your own image. You may attempt it, but all that you will get in return are neurotic, embittered kids. Truth is, all you can do is to establish a moral and ethical template, though with broad parameters to accommodate your children’s unique personalities, temperaments and interests.
That’s not a foolproof child-rearing strategy – not by a long shot – but based on my own experience, it’s the most realistic gameplan for raising happy, self-actualized children.