“Mom, I can’t find my baseball glove.”
I looked up as my eight-year-old daughter, Jennifer, came into the room. She had on her uniform but her feet were bare. Her hat was nowhere in sight. And the baseball game started in twenty minutes.
“It’s on the floor in your closet,” I told her. “Don’t forget your shoes.” And hat, I added silently as she trudged away.
She came back with her hat jammed in her glove and carrying her shoes, minus the socks.
“Hurry up, Jennifer, or you’ll be late.”
“I don’t want to play anymore,” she mumbled.
“”Sure you do,” I insisted. “You always have fun once you get there.”
“I don’t like baseball, Mom.”
I don’t like baseball. Where have I heard those words before? Substitute any other sport or group activity, and the message was the same. Jennifer didn’t like baseball or dance or swimming or soccer. Not piano or sewing or gymnastics or Brownies. I knew what was coming next so I braced myself for her words.
“I want to quit,” she said, right on schedule.
“And do what?” I asked, wondering what new activity had captured her interest.
“Nothing,” she told me. “You always make me do something. Why can’t I just do nothing?”
I thought of her older brother and the many activities he participated in. He was happiest when he had to race from school to baseball practice then to karate class. His self-esteem rose as he learned to work with a team and he improved his coordination skills. I wanted these things for my daughter too.
“Everyone needs a hobby or sport,” I told her.
“Why?” Jennifer shook her head and sat down on the floor. The baseball game was long forgotten. This was a puzzle she intended to solve.
“I just don’t understand,” she said. “Don’t you like me the way I am?”
“Of course I do. I love you.” I reached out to give her a hug, but she pulled away.
“Is there something wrong with me you have to fix? Why do I have to BE something other than ME? Why can’t I just hang out with my friends and play?”
I considered the possibilities. No more team practice. No more playing taxi driver. No fighting, whining, complaining. No dollars down the drain for costumes, entry fees and uniforms that won’t be used. The concept boggled the mind. There were no guidelines in my parent handbook for this situation.
“You don’t want to do anything?” I asked again. “What about tennis lessons?”
“Nothing,” she insisted with an emphatic shake of her head. “I just want to play like I used to, you know, when I was little. Can I, Mom, please?”
I shrugged. Why not? I thought. What do we have to lose?
As it turns out, we lost a daughter who was miserable. In her place we got to see a young and carefree girl truly enjoying her childhood. With the release of pressure to perform, Jennifer began to blossom into the self-confident child I had always hoped hid somewhere within. No longer forced to be athletic, she soon ran laps in an effort to keep up with her brother. She ran for fun, fired with the knowledge she could stop any time she wanted.
Baseball games no longer brought tears and frustration. Jennifer liked going to watch her brother play. She packed a quilt, a few books and maybe some toys. In between making bubble gum runs to the snack shack for her brother and his friends, she socialized with the other kids at the games.
She played tag and whiffle ball. She danced and cheered and did cartwheels to the beat of the rap music on her radio. And her skills and coordination grew. Those same skills I had thought she could only learn when playing team sports.
Without tests or team competition, without measuring herself against the performance of other kids, Jennifer pushed herself to be the best eight-year-old kid she could be. I learned that the need to achieve at something is important, but so is the need to listen to your child, no matter how discordant the beat of their particular drum sounds to your ears.