My son, Daniel, had been playing soccer since pre-school. And his 5th grade travel team had a tough competitor that afternoon. As the goalie, Daniel had let in seven goals in the second half. The game ended as a dismal shutout. And, as he threw his goalie gloves and ball into the trunk and got into the back seat of the car I gave my usual, “you were great today,” and then added, “that team was just really good.”
“Are you kidding?” he responded, with a look that reminded me of when I told him his Ferrari poster board project, complete with messy cut outs, crooked glue sticking and obvious spelling errors was a winner. “I sucked out there,” he said. We sat in the field’s parking lot, the car still not turned on. I looked into the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of his face. His hair was dripping with sweat and he had dirt streaked across his beet-red cheeks. At first he wouldn’t make eye contact. But then slowly and deliberately, he looked up, as if I had challenged him to do so. I had expected to see tears but, instead, was met by his steady glare.
“And, by the way,” he said, not taking his eyes off of mine, “let me give you some advice – as my mom, that’s the worst thing you can say to me after a game. From now on, when I sucked don’t tell me I did great.”
But I am your mother, that’s what I am supposed to do is what I wanted to say in response but instead watched him turn away and look out the window. “So don’t do that anymore. OK?” he added in a softer voice.
It took me a long time to understand how to be a good parent spectator at my children’s sporting events. I was never one to yell, “why did you swing at that?” at Daniel, during one of his baseball games. Or “faster! faster!” at my daughter Emily at a swim meet. In addition to hearing some parents yell, “what’s wrong with you?” and “can’t you go any faster than that?” at their own kids, I would occasionally sit next to a fellow parent who would say “miss” under her breath at an opposing team player preparing to take a foul shot during a basketball game. Or make a hissing sound at an umpire after he called a strike on a 3-2 count at a baseball game. I, on the other hand, had always opted to “staying positive.” So, regardless of the outcome and no matter how good or bad my children’s individual performance had been that day, I would inevitably blurt out, “you did great today.”
But after that ride home from Daniel’s soccer game, I realized it was time to re-evaluate my post-game approach. Thus, on a day when he played catcher and forgot to tag the runner sliding home, I tried, “that must have been frustrating out there today.” And, when my daughter gained time in her 100-yard freestyle event, I said, “maybe you went to bed too late.” Based on their “seriously?” reactions, I eventually abandoned this new attempt at honesty. Luckily, around the same time, I came across a blog post that cited a study about how to be a good parent spectator. It described that college athletes deemed the worst part of their high school and recreational sports experiences the ride home with their parents. Mostly because, win or lose, the conversation was usually about how that play in the field could have gone better or how the ump made bad calls at the plate or how the coach made a wrong decision in his pitching choices. Once in the car ride home, the athlete wanted to transform back to kid again, with the spectator once again becoming the parent.
I thought that was exactly what I had done, telling Daniel he played “great” at goalie even after he had let in seven goals during the second half. But after reading the blog post, I realized that I had been mistaken. Daniel needed me to be a mother in a different kind of way. And he told me so. I never did tell him that he “sucked” in the car ride home from a game, even one where he missed an easy pop fly out in left field and didn’t get a hit the entire game. Instead, I started to tell both my children what those same college athletes remembered as the best thing their parents would say to them in the car ride home. And it was simple. And so true. The antithesis of telling them that they were great when they had a bad day.
“I love to watch you swim,” I say to Emily after she has a slow start off the blocks and thus gains time in a race. And, “I love to watch you play baseball,” I say to Daniel even after he walks the opposing team around the bases and the mercy rule is imposed. Because, as Daniel walks away from the baseball diamond and Emily from the swimming pool, they transform back to being 12 and 14 year old kids. And, as I walk back to the car, with my spectator chair slung over my shoulder, I become their mother – exactly who I’m supposed to be.
Author’s Note: I spend a good part of many weekends sitting on bleachers. If I’ve learned anything as a mother these past 15 years, it’s that my kids don’t want me to tell them how great they played or swam, especially when they had an obvious bad outing. Sometimes I say, “I love to watch you play/swim” on our walk back to the car. Other times we head to the parking lot in silence. “I love you no matter what” is what I really mean, what I really want to say. I hope they both know that.