From the first pitch, I was worried. My ten-year-old son, Eitan, didn’t have the same confident stance as the other kids on his Little League baseball team; he didn’t take major-league-imitating practice swings. For the first few games, Eitan didn’t swing at all.
He’d stopped playing organized baseball years before, after a season of T-ball and half a season of Farm League. In the land of T-ball, there are no outs, and everyone is a winner. In Farm League, the world darkens: there are still no losers but there are outs. When Eitan emerged unprepared into this barely-competitive world and was tagged out on one of his first at-bats, he started to cry, feigning injury to save his pride.
Always a sensitive kid, each of his at-bats became a major tribulation. After a few more outs, and a few more crying spells, he didn’t want to go to the remaining games. The following season, he didn’t want to play again, and not being a force-your-kids-to-do-activities-that-will-require-you-to-drive-them-around-two-or-three-nights-a-week-at-dinnertime kind of mom, I didn’t make him. He played baseball for fun in the backyard and still loved the Red Sox, but despite my husband’s fond memories of playing Little League until he was in high school, I assumed that this wasn’t going to be something in which we took part. So Eitan wouldn’t play sports – there were lots of other things he could do.
Not until my younger son Daniel emerged a rabid sports fan – enacting entire baseball games in our living room, which he narrates in the exact intonation as the announcers on ESPN – did the subject come up again. Daniel was clearly destined for the T-ball field. Maybe it was just sibling rivalry, but his younger brother’s enthusiasm made Eitan reconsider his previous steadfast stance.
“Do you think I should play?” he asked me this past spring, his face a mask of ambivalence and uncertainty.
Or maybe that was my face. In the ensuing years, I’d heard him recount too many stories of “not being good at sports,” and I was wary of wading back into an environment in which I knew he would feel immense pressure. Here was one of those choose-your-own-adventure moments of parenting: Do you force them to go or let them bow out? Do you tell them to toughen up or do you wrap them in consoling hugs? Do you steer your kids to those areas in which you know they will succeed, or encourage them to try new things, even if you can anticipate the meltdowns and self-castigation?
I also wondered why Eitan was interested in playing, when he’d disliked it so much the last time. Had he imbibed the message, out there in the world (and however unwittingly in our house), that boys should play sports? I thought about all those studies celebrating the positive effect of sports on self-esteem, and wondered if for every kid whose confidence is bolstered there is another kid who is scarred by the humiliation.
“Why does he have to play?” a friend asked me when I called to bemoan the potential weeks of baseball ahead, assuming that we (read: my husband) had talked him into this.
“He doesn’t have to. He wants to,” I said.