Mike Lansbury knows when to step in. It’s backing off that proves the real challenge.
My 8-year-old boy is a superb athlete. Not just because of his physical ability, but also his demeanor as a competitor. His actions are what used to be heralded as sportsmanship: offering bruised teammates and opponents a hand up, showing real empathy for hurt limbs or feelings, finding joy in others’ successes, and acknowledging his own mistakes. He is fiercely competitive, but he plays every game with a purity of heart and intention that makes me proud and fills me with admiration.
Last fall, toward the end of a particularly intense soccer game against the league favorites, a frustrated older boy picked up the ball and threw it at my son’s head. He missed—and dinged the referee instead. The angry kid was dealt with.
I will never forget the look on my son’s face. Never. Amid the howls of righteous indignation from players and parents, what I saw in my son was utter confusion. The action of the other player was completely foreign to him. Did this guy hate him? Did he do something offensive or wrong? Weren’t they all just trying their best? Weren’t they having fun?
I watched silently, feeling helpless. I am not overly emotional (you can fact-check that statement with my wife), but that moment was pure heartbreak.
After the game, we talked a lot. Actually, I talked a lot, driven by my paternal instincts to protect and to fix. I was desperate to mend him. My great fear was that the incident would decimate forever the pure joy my son got from physicality and competition—that somehow it would translate into “If I excel, the other kids will hate me.”
I assured him the other player’s reaction wasn’t his fault. He had done nothing wrong—except play really well. So well, in fact, that he’d run the kid out of the game. That was a good thing.
There are tangible moments in everyone’s childhood when a layer of precious innocence is stripped and replaced by some less fanciful, arguably less reassuring truth. These moments come more frequently as our kids mature and stray further from our oversight.
As a father, I have not been privy to most of them. They happened off camera, and my kids processed the information without my analysis or input. But I have witnessed a few, like the soccer incident, and I have never felt more impotent. While on the one hand, I feel privileged to share these growing-up experiences, I desperately wish my kids didn’t have to go through them.
Sometimes the most rigorous action is just being present and available to explain life’s baffling and sometimes ugly circumstances, pick up the pieces, or offer a hug.
Yet while I can’t (and shouldn’t) be around 24/7 to supervise every critical juncture of my kids’ lives, I can protect them from casual, day-to-day exposure to adult realities before they’re old enough to understand and process them for themselves. Part of being a responsible dad is having the balls to go against conventional parenting wisdom (much of which, I’m convinced, exists for our own convenience).
It begins, of course, with media. Any shrink will tell you, kids cannot filter and process torrents of visuals and sound bites designed to entertain adults. They don’t have the knowledge base, experience, or perspective. PG-13 action, horror, even comedy movies are not all right for a pre-pubescent, even if we’re sitting with them. Single-shooter Xbox games are not healthy for a young mind with an undeveloped moral compass, no matter how cool it is to have an in-house gaming buddy. And local news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) is not appropriate background noise while my kids are doing homework.
I have come to know that fathering needs to be practiced in the real world with extreme conviction, follow-through and consistency. It is not easy telling your friends, neighbors, or relatives your boy cannot attend his buddy’s birthday because you don’t think a John Carpenter Film Festival is appropriate. It means saying no to, and for, your kids a lot of the time, even though other parents will feel judged. Not a great way to win friends and influence people, but this fathering thing demands backbone. It’s not for sissies.
There is nothing I could have done to avoid my son’s soccer experience. Surely, it was an age-appropriate rite of passage (and I do pat myself on the back for not getting involved and embarrassing him). But I would never knowingly place any of my kids in a situation they weren’t cognitively prepared to handle. That is something I can control, and it’s probably the best any of us can do as our kids grow up. In fact, it’s the least we can do.