Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

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A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

 

It’s a Boy!

Another of those small milestones of life passed us by the other day.  Our youngest daughter reached the ripe old age of forty-five.  It didn’t appear to faze her, the realization that she is now firmly ensconced in middle-age.  But it brought a flood of memories for me.

Way back then, my wife became pregnant at the same time as one of my sisters—apparently within days of one another.  We didn’t know that at the time, of course, but as delivery day approached for each of them, it became a matter of conjecture as to which would blossom first.

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My brother-in-law and I oversaw a number of betting pools within our two families—all in good fun, naturally.  Who would deliver sooner?  Would the babies be girls or boys?  If one of each, which family would have the boy?  What would be the combined weight of the two babies?

The combined weight of the two mothers was never up for discussion!

As it happened, my sister went into labour first.  In short order, a wee daughter made her grand entrance, and all of us rejoiced.  My brother-in-law and I gathered the vital statistics for the betting-pools.

A day later, my wife told me it was time.  I drove her to the hospital, after dropping our older daughter off with my parents.  It was hard to tell who was more excited, our little girl or my mother and father.  None of them could talk coherently when we departed—my daughter because she was only a year-and-a-half old, my parents because they were so thrilled about my sister’s newborn, and our impending one.

We had elected not to know the gender before our baby’s arrival, as had my sister and her husband.  I think they’d been hoping, if they had a girl, they could borrow our daughter’s swaddling clothes if our new baby was a boy.

As far as we were concerned, the gender issue was a non-issue.  Unlike previous generations in my family (my grandfather and father both celebrated wildly whenever boys were born), I was more than happy to welcome either a sister or brother for our daughter.  However, given our precarious financial situation back then, which would be exacerbated by the arrival of another child, I was secretly hoping for another girl.  I mean, a boy would have looked strange in the pastel pink and yellow clothing that would have to be passed down from his older sister.

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Our hospital was a welcome change from the location where our first daughter had been born.  This time, I was allowed—encouraged even—to be in the delivery room.  I had wanted to do that the first time, but was prohibited.

“We can’t be worried about a father who might faint during the birthing,” I was told.  They had obviously been tipped off that I had once passed out while having stitches removed from my hand.

I practiced for this delivery, though.  I attended the pre-birthing classes with my wife, learning all there was to know about the process.  I stood by her head in the mock-up sessions, holding her hand gently, counting the seconds of each mock-push and each mock-rest between.  I accepted that it was she who was allowed to scream, if necessary during the ordeal, not I.  And I was assured there would be a stool for me to sit on if my legs gave out.

The baby seemed like it would never come.  While my wife snatched some needed sleep, I spent time with my sister and newest niece, in their room down the hall.  In fact, I was there when my sister and her baby were wheeled into the room after a visit to the nursery.  I stood up when they entered.

“That’s not my wife, y’know,” I told the startled nurse.  “That’s my sister!”

The look the nurse gave me could have curdled my sister’s milk, had she been looking.  What sort of degenerates were we?

My sister quickly explained that my wife was awaiting delivery of our own baby, an explanation I wasn’t sure mollified the nurse.

Finally, some eleven hours after we had rushed to the hospital, the moment of arrival approached.  I was ushered into the delivery room, clad in gown, mask, and bootied feet, and planted at my wife’s head.  The doctor stood at the other end, with a mirror above and behind him.  For the next several hours (minutes, actually, but to me they seemed to drag interminably), my wife pushed and cried her way to the point where the baby began to emerge.

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“Let’s rest for a moment,” the doctor said, clearing the baby’s tiny mouth with his finger.

Perched halfway out, with the barely-showing umbilical cord still folded back into the womb, the baby seemed a miracle.

“It’s a boy!” my wife declared between pants of exertion.  Her certainty, it turned out, was the result of mistaking the umbilical cord for another appendage that only a boy would have.

“If this is my son,” I thought to myself, incredulously, “he’s bigger than I am!”

The procedure was completed shortly thereafter, and we welcomed a second daughter into the world.  After she was placed in my arms, I was the first to begin cleaning her squinting face of the birthing detritus.  Words cannot describe my elation at that moment.  Forty-five years later, I remember it still.

To top off the day, my wife was taken to the same semi-private room occupied by my sister.  My mother and father were already visiting her, with our older daughter, when we were escorted in.  What a joyful experience—introducing our newborn to her sister, her slightly-older cousin, and other family members!

After ensuring everyone was settled in properly, the nurse sidled over to me.  With a gentle elbow in my ribs, she whispered, “So, you got them straightened out now, honey?”

Oh, yeah!

 

Now He’s Yours

When he was nine or ten months old, our grandson made a new friend.  Although quite small at the time, he was nevertheless much bigger than his friend—a little brown teddy-bear, stuffed with cotton-fill, hand-crocheted by his Nana.

Our little boy was troubled at night during his first several months, restlessly tossing in bed when he was supposed to sleep.  Colic, wetting, and unnamed fears conspired to keep him awake in spite of his obvious fatigue.

Yet, within a couple of weeks of meeting his new friend, he began sleeping much more soundly.  He would hold his teddy-bear tightly in his arms when he was tucked into bed.  Hours later, one might find the two of them, still closely snuggled, apparently a source of comfort and peace to each other.

As infancy gave way to boyhood, the pattern didn’t change.  The two friends, parted during daylight hours, would never fail to meet again at nightfall, falling asleep in each other’s company.

In due time, our grandson was old enough and eager to trundle off to school.  Over the course of his first two years, he formed strong relationships with new-found friends.  He learned to play with them, to share the same experiences, to discover the wonders of the wider world around them.

But always, at day’s end, when all his other friends were home, our grandson came back to his teddy-bear.  And the teddy-bear was his faithful friend.

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One day, a schoolmate came for an overnight visit.  Our grandson—somewhat abashedly, I think, now that he was eight years old—put his teddy-bear aside, out of sight of his visitor.

“Don’t you want your teddy?” his mother whispered quietly before turning off the light.

“Not tonight,” came the muted reply.  So the teddy-bear was placed in the back of the closet.  And forgotten.

Some months later, in the company of other friends who were visiting, our grandson came across the teddy-bear while searching in the closet for another toy.

“Hey!” exclaimed one of the other boys, picking it up curiously.  “Is this your teddy-bear, or what?”

“Nah,” our grandson said.  “It used to be mine when I was just a kid.”  He took it from his friend and tossed it carelessly back in the closet.

A few days later, his mother asked him about the teddy-bear when he came home from school with his friends in tow.

“I’m packing up some stuff for the church bazaar this coming weekend,” she said.  “I thought I’d throw in your teddy-bear, unless you still want it.”

With a quick glance at his friends, our grandson said, “I don’t want it.  You can give it away.”

So, the friendship died.  And our grandson didn’t seem to miss his oldest friend; not, at least, until the day of the bazaar.

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Wandering among the rows of tables with his Nana and me, idly fingering his only dollar, he heard a woman nearby, scolding her toddler son.

“No!” she told him firmly.  “I told you we can’t buy it.  Now stop your crying!”

Our grandson moved closer.  And there on the table, all but reaching out to the crying child, was his old teddy-bear.  Alone, without his friends around, our grandson looked almost ashamed that the teddy-bear should even be there.  He stared at his old friend for several moments, until, seized by impulse, he proffered his dollar to the saleswoman behind the table, grabbed up the teddy-bear, and took it to the little boy.

“Here,” he said, gruffly.  “He used to be mine, but now he’s yours.  Hold on to him.”

The youngster did.  And the teddy-bear, resurrected, wrapped his arms around his new little friend.

As we walked away, our grandson looked at me.  “What’s wrong, Gramps?  Have you got tears in your eyes?”

I lied and said no.