On a recent Saturday morning, my husband and I found ourselves at the local park, right in the middle of Little League play offs. Déjà vu! It was thrilling to relive our now grown kids’ baseball days in the park—cheers echoing across the field, coaches calling out plays, dust from the infield coating our faces, the ecstasy of the hit, the agony of the dropped fly ball.
The commissioner of Little League, 25 years in the role, inhaled the moment with us. It’s changed in so many ways, he then lamented. The parents today bring a whole different mentality to the game. It’s all about winning. Yet they don’t have any idea how kids learn the game. The time comes for their kid to play little league, and they take him to the batting cage to learn how.
It was my husband who explained what Bob meant. The days of tossing a ball around in the backyard–child with over-sized mitt, Dad with his crusty, beaten up, childhood mitt–are fading. Instead, it is falsely believed that with just a few visits to the batting cage, voila, a baseball player is born. But learning to play baseball is interactive. It’s not about a boy, a bat, and a machine. And it happens over time. There is so much more to baseball than baseball. Where is the most important piece, the father-son part?
Remember the movie “Field of Dreams?” Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield and eventually comes to terms with his relationship with his deceased father via playing catch. Playing catch is both a vehicle and a metaphor for the father-son relationship. There’s a whole lot of back and forth, catches and misses. But for sure it is about a father and son interacting, learning and growing together.
Last week at a parenting group, a mom shared her horror upon learning that parents actually hire “professionals” to teach a child to ride a bike. Yes, it’s true. The business of people like the Bicycle Whisperer in Santa Monica, California is booming because parents today claim they don’t have the time or say they lack the skills. Really?
These days so much of parenting is being outsourced. You can hire someone to comb the nits out of your child’s lice filled hair. (Eewww!) You can even hire someone to choose and set up your Christmas tree–one of the great, shared, family holiday rituals. Doesn’t this imply that parents are giving up on the scope of their job? Children need their fathers and mothers fully engaged, beyond the nighttime kisses and hugs. In the activities being relegated to “professionals” or batting cages, there are lost opportunities for emotional engagement.
Parents will argue: But what if the parent doesn’t know how to do the activity? What if I’m not good at it? Just like your child may not know how to do an activity, neither might you know how to teach or even to play, it is true. But there is more than the sport or activity that is at stake. It is the shared learning experience, the shared emotions, and the life lessons about people that give flavor and depth to the experience. No father is good at all things. What a great message that is for your child. In fact, the message of not being good, or of learning and of trying may be the most important of all. What about learning and practicing together? What about reversing the roles and your child teaching you? There are endless possibilities to consider before outsourcing the task.
I teach a seminar about fathering called “Big Hat, No Cattle.” You get the drift: it takes more than wearing a cowboy hat to be a cowboy. Being a father means more than providing the sperm. Father is a noun and should be a very active verb. It is a commitment to actively raising your child, participating in his life, and it cannot be outsourced. Whether you are loving, teaching, experiencing, reprimanding, or enjoying, fathering is interactive. In playing baseball, guitar, or in myriad other activities, it is the togetherness that counts.
Whether the child is two or twenty he thrives on his day to day experiences with his dad, and it enhances Dad’s life, too. Have a look at this video of a father-son team that creatively epitomizes my point.