“Meg, you never told Mom or me that. Are you sure?” I turned to my father. “I didn’t? Really? Well, it happened so long ago. I guess I was young enough it didn’t occur to me to mention it since I found you within minutes.”
I was in my 1st year in law school in Manhattan, and my parents were visiting. My Mom was spending time with her parents in Westchester and so my dad and I were sitting at the Waverly, my favorite Greek diner near NYU, having lunch. I was recalling a story from my childhood that could have had a tragic ending, but didn’t. “Dad, do you remember when that man approached me that I didn’t know in Osco’s…. in Urbana?” My Dad looked at me, clearly confused. I continued. “You know. The one who wanted me to go home with him?” My father’s eyes widened significantly, and when he remained silent for a long pause, I continued. “Yeah. I was waiting for you and Mom at the check-out line and he said, “Hi, I am a friend of your father’s.” Only I didn’t recognize him. He told me, “Your Dad told me to drive you home.” He continued to describe how you needed to do something unexpectedly, and had already left. I was only about age eight, and was immediately confused, but also uncertain whether there was any truth behind the stranger’s offer. I began to look around, and decided I needed to at least first try to find you and Mom. I told him you were here–with Mom, Peter and Ted. The man began to look around and said “I don’t see your family.” He told me to come with him—-that you might be angry with me if I don’t listen to him.
In that moment I remembered what my Dad had always said. “Worry about the things you can do something about.” I knew this didn’t feel right. And so I yelled at the top of my lungs, “M-O-M! D-A-D! Where are you?” “Meg, why are you yelling? We are right here.” I rushed toward my family, and quickly glanced back to show the man that he was wrong and that my parents were still in the store. Only, he was nowhere in sight.
At that moment my Dad began with “Meg, you never told Mom or me that….” He ended his reply visibly shaken-up. “I can’t believe that happened to you, Meg.” My dad finally took a bite of his sandwich. “Yeah, pretty scary, huh?” I looked up at him. Staring at his face, I added. “Hey Dad, that was a long time ago.” He grabbed my one-fingered hand. “Yes, but it reminds me how little control we as parents really have over our children.”
As we prepare to pick up Ethan from sleep-away camp this weekend, I can’t help but reflect on how incredibly confident and positive a young man he has already become. But for some new readers to my blog, I need to set the record straight. Thank goodness he is doing so well—since I certainly have made some mistakes parenting him along the way. Fortunately, I have learned some important lessons. When I gave birth to Ethan, I was committed to applying my Dad’s saying, “Worry about the things you can do something about” to every aspect of Ethan’s life. I figured that meant that as long as there was something….no….anything that I could do to make the world a better place for Ethan to live in, I was willing to try. While I appreciated that parents of kids without any type of significant difference might feel the same way, I actually felt that for us, I was practically entitled to the intervention. Experience, however, said otherwise. I have several examples. Here is one:
When Ethan was in 2nd grade, he had already been playing soccer for a few seasons, and I had learned from other moms that simply EVERYONE had their kid switch from the local Y soccer club to a private club’s travel soccer team. Apparently, all the coaches flew in from the UK each year and were renowned for developing the kids’ skills on the field. Although Ethan by the age of seven understood the game enough to play decently, he had not developed strong skills. So I figured I’d be depriving him of an important opportunity if I didn’t ensure he had imported British soccer coaches.
A few weeks after I signed up Ethan, I saw that he was placed on a team of kids he didn’t know from another school. I was not happy. Didn’t they see that I had requested the other team so he could be with his friends? I was certain that having his buddies alongside him on the field was important to his developing confidence in the sport. “You must put Ethan on that team with the rest of his classmates,” I begged over the phone. “You need to understand. He was born differently, and his sport options are very limited. Soccer is not only his only sport of choice, it is his only option. It is so important he have a wonderful experience!” I practically demanded. And so, I got my wish and Ethan was placed on the requested team. Later that night, I felt not only relieved but grateful that I had stepped in and controlled the situation. This was something that I could do for him. Everything would be wonderful for the season, I was certain.
Only, I was completely mistaken. Ethan’s teammates had all been in the league together for more than a year, and were exceptional soccer players. Not only were the coaches quite brutal in their coaching style to the kids (literally screaming at them), but in their desire to win every game, the coaches had Ethan spend a disproportionate portion of the season on the bench. In the last few minutes of each game, they would finally call him onto the field only to put him in a fullback defense position, to assist the team’s goalie. “Go Ethan!” I would shout in his direction, while my heart would sink. On the last game of the season, Ethan’s team had made the playoffs and crushed their opposing team effortlessly. Again, Ethan had the least amount of playing time. After they won, he jumped up and down with his teammates. “Mommy, we won! We won!” We embraced, but I had a pit in my stomach.
Two weeks later, after a mid-week try-out for all players, the team lists were to be posted: “A” for the best players. “G” for the least-gifted and talented. I immediately knew at this point Ethan would be split from his teammates, given they were extremely talented and he just decent, but average. But then things didn’t exactly go as planned. The night before the official team postings, I received an email from the soccer organization.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Zucker,
We regret to inform you that our soccer league had to cut five players for the forthcoming year, and one of them was your son, Ethan. We hope you understand—there just simply weren’t enough players to form an additional team. We hope Ethan had a great experience this past year and you all have a wonderful summer.
I was incensed. “How does anyone cut a seven-year old? How am I supposed to explain this to Ethan?” I cried to John that night as Ethan slept in his bed nearby. I was fully aware that all the boys would be talking about their team placements. The next season, we enrolled Ethan into the local soccer club. Although initially reluctant to join, given he knew he had been cut in the other league, we encouraged Ethan to give it a shot because we knew he liked to play soccer and that really was all that mattered. It paid off. In this league the coaches raved about his dedication and played him in every position. He enjoyed equal time on the field. And then, this past fall, Ethan’s team won the Division Championship. As Ethan raced up to us, his blue eyes sparkling in the sunshine, he shouted proudly, “Mom! Mom, my team and I won!” This time, I too felt overjoyed.
When I became a parent, I was convinced that I could apply my Dad’s message broadly, even to my children. When I felt there was something I could do to intervene, it was necessary. But not only has this been unrealistic, it actually has directly backfired. When I think about it, my parents never intervened in my experiences, almost always choosing to let the chips fall where they may and have me learn life’s lessons, even the hard ones. Even when they must have wanted to intervene, the only thing they actually controlled was their urge to do so. I now believe my success in this world depended on it. However, they raised me such a way that I would not hesitate to do everything for myself that was within my control. That was always worth the effort and even the risk. As a result, as great as my Dad’s message is, I have learned that it only really works when you apply it to yourself.
Now that I can teach my own children.