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Will The Real Parent Please Stand Up

Oct 22, 2007
I used to play baseball in high school and college. I even played in an over thirty league back in the mid eighties. When my child Sarah was born in 1991, baseball wasn't something I thought she would ever be interested in. But when she was about six, I took her over to the park to hit some baseballs. She picked up the balls after I hit them, and she got up to bat. She hit a few balls, and she even ran the bases. Sarah had and still has athletic ability- good hand eye coordination, flexibility, strength and agility. Well, when Sarah was 7, she came to me one day and said, "Hey dad can I play soccer?" I said, "Sure." So I went out and bought her a soccer ball, shin guards, and cleats. I signed her up for the recreational league in town. I must admit I was pretty enthused. We practiced kicking the ball in the backyard, and we were both getting pretty excited about her first game.

Well, the Saturday of the first game came, so Sarah and I headed up to the soccer field. After some warm-up activities and a pep talk from the coach, the game started. To my surprise Sarah was in the starting line-up. She ran up and down the field for the first ten minutes or so, and she finally had an opportunity to kick the ball. She took her first kick, missed the ball, and landed flat on her back. She got up, and came crying over to the sideline and begged, "Don't make me play anymore, Dad, I can't do it." She refused to go back into the game. The game ended, and on the way to the car she continued to cry, "Don't make me play Dad, please, I don't want to." I mustered up all my courage and I said to her sternly, "You're playing. You are playing. Now get in the car." She got in the car and we drove home. On the way home all I heard was a bunch of sniffling and whining in the back seat. I didn't have a very long ride home, but I can tell you this. She wore me out. I was emotion ally exhausted by the time I got home. We pulled up into the driveway, and I sat miserably in the car as I watched Sarah get out and walk into the house, sniffling and shaking as she walked through the front door. I sat stewing in the car and said to myself, "Who wants to play soccer anyway, dumb game." I then attempted to further rationalize my thoughts by saying to myself, "Soccer's for boys anyway." I walked into the house, stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled up the stairs, "SARAH." She sniffled her way through a "Yeah dad." I said, "Come down here." She came down the stairs, and I said to her, "Look honey, you don't have to play soccer, if you don't want to play. It's ok with me." She said, "Oh thank you daddy." She gave me a big hug and kiss and ran back upstairs. Honestly, I felt like her hero. I was her knight in shining armor. I had just come through for her, and given her exactly what she wanted. I was sure I had made the prudent decision; I didn't even have to ask her mother's opinion. I figured what's the big deal, no harm done. I was content in the knowledge that I had allowed my six year old daughter to make her own decision.

Well, I have another daughter named Grace (Grace is 6 years younger than Sarah) who came to me when she was six years old and said, "Hey dad,can I play soccer?"

I said, "Sure honey." The same routine started again, the shin guards, the cleats, the soccer ball, the practice, and finally the game. But this time, the outcome was much different. Grace ran enthusiastically up and down the field from one end to the other. She never got near enough to even touch the ball, but she had a great time. Grace came off the field with a look of absolute joy in her eyes and said to me, "Boy, that was fun Dad." She played the first season, and had a ball. She played the next season and really improved a lot. She wanted to score really badly, but didn't have the opportunity. She still loved the game. To her, every game was an event, an outing that ended with a snack and a Gatorade, lunch, and a fun time spent with me.

While this was going on Sarah was into cheerleading, gymnastics, track, palates, and even a little weight lifting. She loved designer clothes, having her nails done, tanning, make-up, and just looking good. She watched her weight and understood that in order to look good, she had to spend a good deal of time exercising. She commented to me one time that some of her friends on her track team had less body fat than she did and that they could run faster than she could. It was just a passing comment but I remember her saying it, and I most definitely noticed that she was bothered by this.

One day Sarah and I drove over to the soccer field to pick Grace up from a soccer practice. We got to the field, and Grace got into the car sweating; her face was as red as a tomato. Sarah handed a Gatorade and a snack over to her in the back seat, and Grace just sat there, contentedly guzzling her drink. Sarah looked back at Grace, then looked forward, looked back again at Grace again, and then stared straight at me. She said, "Hey dad, why didn't you make me play soccer?"

I said (defensively), "I wanted you to play. Don't you remember? You kicked the ball once, missed it, and fell on your head. Then you begged me not to make you play again."

She answered me with , "SO? Why didn't you make me?"

Now I was the one who was starting to sweat. I said, "You didn't want to play. You wouldn't let up until I agreed not to make you play.Sarah then made a statement to me that I will never forgot as long as I live. She said, "But dad, you're supposed to be in charge."

Where had I gone wrong seven years earlier? At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do was to give in to what Sarah wanted. But it turned out that I hadn't done what she needed me to do. I had allowed a six year old to decide whether or not she wanted to play soccer. What had she really needed at the time? She needed me to tell her that she was going to play soccer because I as the parent knew what was best for her, and I wasn't going to give her a way out. She wanted me to be in charge, not allow her to be in charge. I unknowingly had let her down.

When I teach my graduate courses, I ask my adult students the following question all the time. How many things did your parents let you get away with as a kid that you wish you had never gotten away with? I usually get lots of stunned looks from my students.

Too often we allow our children to make choices and decisions that they have no business making. I see it all the time in supermarkets, stores, and malls, parents giving in when their children demand they buy something, or parents trying to coax their kids to stop crying or to stop running away from them. The children ignore their parents' pleadings. Usually, the parents say something to their children like, "What do you want to do?" Well honestly, who cares what they want, they're three years old!

I'm not totally sure where this whole attitude has come from, but I have my own theory that Dr. Benjamin Spock had a lot to do with it. Spock's first book, Baby and Child Care" was first published in 1946 just in time for the baby boomer generation. In his book he spoke about feeding on demand, respecting your children, the need for flexibility, and the lack of the necessity to worry about spoiling. The paperback sold more than 50 million copies and was translated into 30 languages. Critics of Spock claimed that he was "the father of permissiveness." In later years, Spock claimed that he never changed his basic philosopy on child care, that it was imperative to respect children because they're human beings and they deserve respect. But he seemed to retreat somewhat from his teachings when he made statements such as "I've always said ask for respect from your children, ask for cooperation, ask for politeness. Give your children firm leadership." Years later, he beca me more moralistic and he said that parents should give their children strong values and encourage them to help others. This is only supposition, but I hypothesize that Spock may have decided that he didn't like what he saw in society and realized that he may have played a part in the screwing up of generations. In later editions of the book originally titled The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, he stressed that children needed standards and that parents also had a right to respect. He stated in his book that parents were starting to become afraid of imposing on the child in any way.

I 'm not claiming to be an expert on child rearing, but I do know that if children are are fed on demand they will be demanding. If they are allowed to say anything they want they will be disrespectful. If they are not held accountable they will be irresponsible. And if there are no consequences for inappropriate behavior they will be non-compliant. Parents today always ask, What can we do with our kids today? My question is, What are we going to do with these parents?

Once I relinquished my natural right as a parent to make decisions for my children, I was never truly able to reestablish my parental authority. From the moment that my daughter convinced me to allow her to make the choice not to play soccer, she learned she had the power to make basically every decision that came along in her life whether large or small. And the saddest part of all of this for me is that she blames me because I wasn't strong enough NOT to let her assume a role she was never designed to play in her own young life.

Dr. Spock has since passed away, and I think many of us are looking for a new voice to offer us some solid advice to help us sort out the mess we are in today.
About the Author
Jim Burns is one of America's most inspirational educational speakers. His humorous and insightful presentations touch and influence his audiences in an unforgettable way. Best known for his presentations on Bullying, Motivating Disaffected Students, Diffusing Power Struggles, Character Education, and Leadership, Jim has worked as a teacher and administrator since 1977. For more about Jim Burns http://behavioral-management.com/
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