Well, it feels kind of official now — we’re driving the minivan (Syliva Brown McTague), and we actually have a soccer player in it. The consummate icon of modern parenting — the Soccer Mom — has been somehow grafted onto our hippy-dippy family stock, and apparently as seamlessly as if it had always been there.
And yet, as is par for our own parenting course (and to properly muddle the metaphors), we’re doing team sports with an eye for how to maintain the integrity of our commitment to parenting with Empathy (AP, as you may know, is Attachment Parenting; EP is Empathy Parenting [AP after infancy]). Yes, we want Echo to have the benefit of active play with friends who share a common set of challenges and variable outcomes together. Yes, we want her to know what it’s like to push her body and feel it perform feats of precision and endurance and power. And obviously we want her to have some fun and feel a measure of success — in whatever way(s) she defines it. But we also want her experience of team sports to fall in line with the same kind of support and nurturance that she has come to expect from us and which we feel to be in her best developmental interests.
And that’s a fairly tall order on some levels…
The approach thus far has been demanding (mostly of bravery on all our parts), but also tender and educational, and seemingly a success. It started like this:
Echo was unsure that first soccer practice. She didn’t want to be dropped off (not that we would), or cut loose, or left to her own devices with this team of strangers. She’s an AP and EP kid. She has expectations about being supported in new endeavors, a fully developed (and powerfully nurtured) sense of being able to ask for what she wants and needs, and a home team on which she can rely. So that first day, Mom and Xi and I all went with her, and watched and played nearby and cheered her on when she wanted it. Mom even held her hand before…
and during practice, when it was appropriate and Echo wanted it. I say, “when it was appropriate”, because there was a good portion of the practice that was doing drills of various descriptions, and during those, Natalie didn’t hold Echo’s hand — she was her drill partner instead. All through that first practice, Natalie was with Echo, helping her get into the swing of things, and facilitating her participation. In effect, Natalie nurtured Echo into this new experience — and with a dedication and boldness that I have never seen in another Soccer Mom…
But that wasn’t all there was to it — oh no…
The first game went fairly smoothly, as I reported here. Echo got into playing and seemed to have a really lovely time. And even though it brought up all kinds of concerns for me, based on my own experience with organized sports, I wound up feeling like it was a pretty fun thing for Echo to be getting to do. The next practice was fairly easy, as well, with Echo leaping right into it without needing a familial drill partner or a hand to hold.
But something else occurred for her during that second practice which wound up making the second game a bit more thrilling than the first. She got intimidated by a teammate. He wasn’t doing anything really troublesome, per se, but she found some of his choices unnerving and became quietly unsure about being involved on the same team. So when that second game came around, we arrived and set up field-side amidst on-and-off-again Spring blizzard conditions. Then when the game was just about to start, Echo turns to us and says that she doesn’t want to play.
The parents both about choked.
“What do you mean you don’t want to play — you have to play — everyone’s counting on you, you made us be involved with this, this is how team sports work, and we’re feeling f#*king embarrassed that the game is starting and you are refusing to go onto the field!!!” Of course we didn’t actually say any of that, but we were feeling versions of all of it and more. I was suddenly flashing on that time when I was a kid playing football and refused to leave the field even though I was injured and the coach had to come and coax me to the sidelines, and the embarrassment I felt at both not being able to continue and holding up the game “making a scene”. And I am looking at my little girl, and thinking all of the above, but also, “How dare this stupid team sport establishment make my daughter feel pressured to go have fun.”
The referee blew the whistle, the game started, and Echo still wasn’t going to join her team. Natalie and I closed in around Echo, in a way I think intuitively blocking her from the surroundings and the pressure represented by them for a moment. We bent down beside her, Natalie hugging her from one side and me on the other, rubbing her back — and we began empathizing.
Now, obviously, this was not our best version of actually communicating the empathy we were feeling for Echo in that moment, because of the immense pressure we felt due to the timing. Normally, even if we are asking her, or essentially requiring that she do something that she doesn’t want to, we can and do take the time to hear her out fully and make due room for all of the feelings she is having with respect to the situation at hand and/or any other feelings getting in the way of her addressing the current situation. We take the time it takes for that, and usually it doesn’t take nearly as long as continuing to try and force something without making space for the feelings involved — especially since young kids can’t be in their rational minds while they are feeling potent emotions. Normally, we just stay with the feelings until they shift and then we can proceed with whatever actions are necessary. But kneeling down beside her, with seconds of the game ticking off, the coach occasionally shouting (kindly) for Echo to join in, the mounting embarrassment of being the parents with the kid refusing to go onto the field, and the genuine feeling that if she could just get over this hump she would enjoy herself and if not she might regret it for some time — well, it wasn’t that easy to stay in the Empathy Zone, to say the absolute least.
Nevertheless, and even though it was punctuated throughout by us lobbing our rationale for wanting her to act without taking the time to process all of the feelings at her, we were still somehow able to give her enough space to tell us her feelings, and just enough of a sense of having been heard, that suddenly — and at the very moment when we were either going to fall over the cliff into trying to force her onto the field or stand-up and tell the coach that she wasn’t going to play that day — Echo shook free of her reservations, gave each of her family members a huge hug and bounded into the game. Within a minute she was all smiles and play and joy. She even wound up getting into the game more than she had yet previously — getting so bold as to jump into the middle of play and start stealing the ball from the opposing team. In the end, she also found that that teammate is actually a pretty fun guy.
Fast forward another week, to yesterday’s game. Echo had no trouble jumping in, playing hard, getting bolder, and enjoying herself to the fullest. She and that teammate were cheering each other on and getting along swimmingly; and all of the teammates seemed to be getting more comfortable with each other and having a great time with their friendships, as well. Echo is loving it — and that makes it all seem worthwhile to me.
Interestingly, what I noticed in the most recent game, among other things, was the manner in which Echo was/is the measure of her own success. One of her other teammates, who is pretty darned good at soccer, seemed to need to check in visually with the parents at every turn — in order to gauge performance quality, even sometimes mouthing an apology from the field for a missed opportunity or failed attempt. That player got less and less involved and more and more incapacitated during the course of the game. Natalie later mentioned it to me, having noticed the same thing, and she said, “That’s the legacy of praise…”. The teammate couldn’t do anything at all in the game without needing to refer to the parents to either give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. A very capable player, paralyzed by parental judgment, and having almost no fun at all because of it — not the kind of sports experience that any of us (not even that teammate’s parents) would prefer! Echo never even noticed our reactions to her performance until after the game when we all share/d our thoughts together; and because we’re empathizing with her, our reactions are based around identifying with her experience, sharing in the exuberant joy as well as the heart-wrenching trials, and not trying to tell her that she did good (when she didn’t think so) or that she didn’t do well enough (when she thought she did), or communicating to her (however subtly or not) that her worth to us or performance in the game is affected by our opinion of how well she played.
It’s a game and she’s playing — there is, in the end, no reason whatsoever for her to need us to tell her whether or not it’s working for her. She’ll either like it and enjoy doing her best at it or she won’t. At the very least, she’ll never have reason to doubt our love and acceptance regardless of how she performs. And that makes me proud to be a Soccer Pop.
Hope you and yours are enjoying your own versions of this parenting life, too. Even when it challenges you to be braver and more understanding than you ever thought you could be!
P.S. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out Natalie’s thoughts on the effect of praise in the most recent game, here.