You’re getting ready to load your son and his gear into the car and notice that he’s gone back into the house for what must be his fifteenth trip to the bathroom. When he comes out, his eyes are red and watery. He tells you that he doesn’t feel well. Does he have to go to basketball practice today? he wants to know. It’s the third time in five weeks that he’s wanted to skip.
It’s a big moment for everyone—the beginnings of either a protracted battle for power and control, or a family experiment in handling strong differences of opinion, balancing concerns for a child’s welfare with respect for his wishes and individuality, and constructively managing a colorful mix of emotions.
Lots of questions come up:
- Should you insist that your child go?
- How do you handle a tantrum?
- What will it mean if your kid is allowed to skip one session or quit altogether?
- Will letting him avoid sports enable his anxiety about competing / getting hurt, or demonstrate respect for his individuality?
Stock answers aren’t useful here, because the same response may be enabling for one boy but kind for another. Some boys need to be pushed a little at a time because without that they wouldn’t do anything new. A more independent kid could feel so offended by being pushed that he digs in even harder or blows up at the parents.
You need some direction in navigating all this, though. Rather than compile a set of rules that feels forced, I’m listing instead four questions that can serve as guides for arriving at answers with everyone’s values and esteem and dignity intact. Here they are:
- Are you giving your son ample opportunities to tell or show you who he really is and who he doesn’t care to be (e.g., wants to be an artist; doesn’t want to compete against his friends; doesn’t like the idea of “beating” other kids or winning over them)?
- Are you hearing him and does he know that you are hearing him? Check in with your son to make sure that what you heard matches what he told you. Remain present and focused on him during the entire time you’re talking.
- Are you finding ways to help your son understand that there might be times when you will want to push him in order that he doesn’t get stuck in his comfort zone—not because you are trying to control his activities or friends?
- Can you separate the objective (e.g., finding new friends, becoming a well-rounded individual) from the means by which it can be accomplished (sports versus other types of activities) so that new ideas can come into play? There are many ways for kids to make friends other than by participating in sports; besides, if your son doesn’t like sports, he’s probably not going to find them there anyway.
Sometimes a simple yes or no just isn’t going to do the trick. But your kid’s worth it, so it’s okay.
—Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD