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Parental hopes vs. a child's space

By Rea Killeen, 7/8/2001


was watching my 8-year-old's Little League baseball game when I saw one of his pals get up and slug the ball to the moon.

I turned to the mother of this miniature Manny and said, "Boy can he hit!" His mother laughed and said, "It's a good thing he can hit, 'cause he sure can't run."

She was right. As I watched, he didn't run to first base, he waddled, getting there just before the tag.

"Safe," the ump barked. "See," the mother said. "God provides."

I wish I could keep this idea, that we make up for our defects in one area by excelling in another, calmly in mind when I think about my children. But it's not easy. How do I help them find their strengths without overextending them, or over-expecting of them?

This spring, my failure in this area wreaked havoc for my 8-year-old. He was so overextended and exhausted he couldn't remember anything. During the last week of school, he forgot his lunch, his homework, his glove for baseball practice, his stick for hockey, and his money for the book fair. Now, why in the world would we put our son in hockey and baseball at the same time? Well, his coach encouraged him to play spring hockey. And, our son told us he wanted to do this. So we let him. If he wanted to jump off the bridge in East Milton, would we let him do that, too?

For three months we watched our son knock himself out to excel in school, baseball, hockey, and preparation for first Holy Communion. It has now sunk into our thick skulls that he was operating on overdrive.

So summer is here, and we have concluded that the way to find our children's strengths may be to stand back and let the kids have what my son longed for this spring and rarely got: free time. Free time, to find their own interests.

Recently Dr. Brad Sachs, author of "The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied," showed up on a talk show suggesting that over-scheduling children leaves them no space to develop a sense of what they want to become.

I was struck by this, following another of my son's baseball games this spring. The coach of the losing team, who happened to be the father of the little boy who pitched, comforted his players with comments like, "It was a good game, you played hard, and you gave it your best shot."

Then, to the shock of those of us within earshot, he finished by blaming the loss on his son, claiming he "blew it for the team."

I thought I had misheard him but was told by some other parents that he "always does this" to his son. How in the world is his son supposed to feel after being humiliated, by his own father, in front of his teammates? And what in the world is his father trying to teach his son? Anything at all about the joy of the game?

The whole episode made me think of my own unrealistic expectations for my kids. I expected them to live at a frenetic pace that would challenge an Olympic athlete, to continue to perform well in school, to be helpful and considerate at home, and to remain kind and patient at all times. While I am not ready to relinquish my expectations regarding kindness and consideration, I am ready to offer the kids a little time that they can call their own. I am also willing to accept that they may not always excel in their chosen activities.

When I was a kid, I saw the New York City Ballet perform "Swan Lake," and after that, there was no talking me out of pursuing ballet. I was never really good at ballet, but I had fun, and thankfully, no one told me that I had blown it after the recitals.

One of the hardest things is not overpushing what looks like a natural talent in a child. When my oldest son took swimming lessons at the Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, I remember being excited to see that he had an excellent backstroke. As a kid, I swam backstroke competitively, and I encouraged him to think about joining a team.

He shrugged, nearly scowling at the suggestion. I managed to let it go because this is his life, not mine, but I was disappointed.

It is difficult not to pray that at least one of our kids will help pay for the rocketing cost of college tuition through excelling in one sport or another. Stand around a hockey rink and eavesdrop for a minute, and you will surely hear at least a couple of parents talking about their child's chances at college scholarships. Stand around a baseball diamond, a soccer sideline, a football stadium, a swimming bleacher - you'll hear the same. Disengaging our hopes and desires from those of our kids is no easy task, and I've worked up a pretty good sweat in this wrestling match.

We wanted our son to play the violin, but it seemed to us that all he wanted was to play with his friends. A smart kid, he just stuffed that irksome violin under his bed. It collected dust; the teacher collected our money; and we collected our brains, which we apparently had lost during those months of battling over violin practice. We ended the lessons and set him free.

Given free time to explore, our son learned that what he really liked was science. He read, with enthusiasm, about animals, the solar system, natural disasters, ocean life. It took us awhile, but we got it.

So far, my kids have chosen activities I would never have considered. My oldest loves fishing. I hate worms and hooks. My middle son loves hockey. I have weak, uncooperative ankles. My youngest loves baseball. I swing a bat like I'm swatting flies. Despite my clumsy parenting skills, they have found ways to make life work for them. I'd like to take credit for their good fortune. But I think my friend had it right when upon her son's safe arrival at first base she said, "God provides." For those of us who find parenting delightful, but challenging, it's a darn good thing he does.

Rea Killeen, a teacher of writing and literature, has three young sons and writes from Milton. Her e-mail address is

This story ran on page 2 SA of the Boston Globe on 7/8/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.