Toddler Triathletes

Truly successful athletes have a winning combination of ability, drive and opportunity. That particular
trifecta is what propels the best of them to the big time—be that college-level play, the Olympics or the dance floor of pro athletics. The possession of all three of those oft illusive components are what separates Michael Phelps from the kids at the other end of the pool.

          I get that.

          I also admire it.

          And will likely be watching as top athletes from 204 countries step to center stage at the 2012 Olympics. I’ll marvel at their ability, revel in their accomplishments, get caught up in the pomp and circumstance. I’ll still get choked up when they raise our flag to the rafters, understanding not only the pride in a final full-win, but also all that must have come long before it. The work, the sweat, the dedication.

          Whatever the games’ outcomes, the ripple effects across the pond will surely yield an uptick of participation among young, would-be athletes. For the love of a sport, in the thrill of competitive play, kids will take to fields, gyms and arenas. There’ll be new swimmers and gymnasts; new interest in soccer, volleyball and fencing.

          All good. All fun.

          But as millions of baby runners and divers and fencers and kickers and players jump into pools, and onto fields and into arenas, it’s important to note that the vast majority of them won’t make much of a splash. Eureka results from the gold rush of competitive athletics are discovered for precious few. Tenacity can’t replace talent and even the most gifted of athletes often fall short of their own goals.

          That’s not to say the bar shouldn’t be high and that those with a passion shouldn’t pursue it. They should. And I’m certain that most every Olympic athlete competing in London will avow that their sacrifice was worth it.

          Passion and sacrifice are a good combo toward success, but not when the passion belongs to the parent instead of the kid and when the sacrifice is a childhood. 

          Modeling itself upon the adult version of the event, there’s a new kid sport in town: triathlons. Its proponents tout it as a low-key version of the anything-but real-deal events. They say it’s good
exercise, that it’s a swim-bike-run for fun.

          But by its very definition, a triathlon isn’t for the uninvested. It’s intense. As it’s supposed to be. But do our kids really have to be? Already?

          When I read of a six-year-old training at a local Y, I couldn’t help but think: kids shouldn’t be training; they should be playing.

          And when a trainer said, “just to finish a triathlon, for a 6-year-old, is a big deal,” I thought duh.

          So is skimming a stone, or mastering the splash of a cannonball or spinning around in circles without toppling over.

          Or laying in a summer’s grassy field and imagining dragons in the clouds.

 

A Perfect Son



    He is the perfect young man.

    
I can say that without hesitation. For two reasons.

    
First, he isn’t mine.




    Second, he isn’t actually perfect.




    But then that makes him more perfect, still.




    He’s made his share of bad choices. He’s done things for which I am sure he is not proud. Some of them not quite legal. But he always comes back around to who he always was.




    In kindergarten, when the teacher allowed circle time to be about the children’s requests to Santa, his peers were likely asking for Furbies and Beanies, games and gadgets. He had bigger needs. 

    
Perhaps he already had a sense of how the world worked. In his little kid view, Santa must have loomed large as the go-to guy. Santa had connections.




    So when it was his turn, he had a simple request. He didn’t want a toy or a game. He didn’t want anything. The gift he wanted wasn’t even for himself –it was for his friend.

    
He must have figured Santa was high in rank on God’s payroll because he had a favor to ask of the big G. He wanted Santa to ask God to give his friend one chance, one moment, a single phone call –to the boy’s dad.  More than anything he wanted for himself, he wanted his friend to have the chance to talk to his father, a man whom the boy had never met, who had died just before he was born.

    
Santa didn’t come through. Neither did God.

    
Apparently he forgave them both. He still prays. He still believes in a higher power.

    
He and his faith have been often tested –too many times for someone so young. 

    
The college at which I work doesn’t have too many hard-knock-life stories. And most of the kids seem to get it that they’ve got it pretty easy. But I find that even here, it’s those who are asked to shoulder the most who seem most able to gather the strength to handle the weight –same holds true for the adults I know. It’s the sentiment of a saying my mom hates –that God only gives you what you can handle.

    
I understand why she takes umbrage at it. Doesn’t seem fair to me either that a benevolent God would punish you for being strong. My mom’s pretty strong; she’s be duly punished.




    My young man is also pretty strong and he’s again being tested, being asked to step up.

    
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

    
The boy who is now an adult is too well trusted.



    By powers beyond here and by those of us who know him well. We know he will meet this next challenge as he has met so many in the past –with inner strength, quiet grace.




    I just wish he didn’t have to. It isn’t fair. And he shouldn’t be punished for being a good person.





Blame It on the Tooth Fairy


    We certainly didn’t originate the concept, but we are perpetuating it. And inflating it, apparently. My sister-in-law, who works in our town’s K-3 school, says the going rate of a lost tooth these days is five bucks. Wow. For virtue of a throw away to every other species on the planet, our kids are yielding some serious bucks.




    In the name of tradition, we’re padding their pillows with cash and sending a message: minimum effort = maximum return. 

    
Hmm.

    
Before you berate my dis to the Tooth Fairy, consider that Santa at least expects good behavior and that the Easter Bunny demands a bit of hunting proficiency. But not the Tooth Fairy. She doesn’t even grade the teeth, or consider the pain with which they may have been extracted. Based solely upon bodily function –in with new teeth, out with old- she delivers reward. Not a bad pay structure, if you can get it.

    
And they can –because we allow it. 

    
Not just by means of the Tooth Fairy but in so many other contemporary versions of the metaphor. By handing out trophies to everyone, by inflating grades and tossing accolades like confetti. And by telling our offspring that they are ALL wonderful. 

    
And they are. Just not at everything.




    That’s more the message we should be sending. Because the problem with giving them much without getting much from them is that it sets the bar pretty low. Instead of being rewarded for a job well done, they’re just being rewarded. 

    
Back in the 20th century when I grew up (makes us all sound old, huh?), my friend and I had our summers pretty easy. We’d hang in the neighborhood, ride our bikes, hop from pool-to-pool. We’d also play a lot of mini golf, hit the arcade and buy ourselves ice cream cones. But our excursions to the big dinosaur weren’t financed by our parents. Not directly anyway. Before we could head out to the links, we had to earn the cash. Okay, it wasn’t digging trenches, but it was work –we’d wash cars, most typically those of our parents. The interesting thing was that while my mom was a pushover with regard to how well we did our job, my friend’s dad was not. His car needed to be spotless and scrubbed to perfection. Our golf money wasn’t handed over until his car underwent a pretty vigorous inspection. Often, there was a redo involved. We weren’t very happy. But what a good message he sent. We got paid only for a job well done.

    
I relate the story not just in a nod to summertime nostalgia, but also because I wonder how often we demand a redo from our own kids. I know I’m too often guilty of letting things slide. As a toddler, Alex made her bed with tight corners and patted down ruffles; now there’s a tangle of covers heaped in a pile. At one time, every lego and choo choo had a set-in-stone home in her brother’s room. Those toys could very well still be there –buried under the pile of clean clothes Michael pulls from every morning as he gets dressed. Oh, how our standards have slipped.

    
I have an interesting relationship with the professors at my school. Interesting, I say, because I rarely meet them. Instead, I get to know them only through the eyes of their students. I find it particularly telling when two students give me completely opposing viewpoints of the same professor. Says more about the student than the teacher, I know. But from this limited scope, I have chosen the professors that I like best, not for who they are, but rather for how they teach. And, of course, how they treat my students. I like when the expectations placed upon my kids are clear and the deadlines are unwavering. And the other thing I really like –is when the bar is high. Because I know my students can reach it. 

    
I have two students upon whom I rely to give me accurate assessments of the professors. Both of them are bright and capable and both of them have received their share of poor grades. What is telling is that when given the recent option to opt for the easy teacher or the one with the reputation of being a hardass, they both chose the latter. Not because they’re type A or because they seek fulfillment from a teacher; they’re not, they don’t. Instead, it’s because they recognize the difference between mediocrity and the reach for perfection. Not perfection. Just the idea of it as a beacon from which to chart a course. 

    
What I’ve discovered is that our kids don’t really mind reaching to high expectations. They just need to know where they are and maybe be given a little guidance on how to get there.




Ch-ch-ch-changes


    Michael didn’t transition terribly well as a child. Little things, like leaving my arms to go to another’s, getting in the tub, getting out of the tub –took actual planning . When we visited Disney with him as a toddler, he decided, pretty adamantly, that seeing Mickey simply wasn’t worth the price of not sleeping in his own bed. He staged an escape from the hotel room sometime after midnight.

    
Alex, on the other hand, slipped from day-to-day, calamity-to-calamity with little pause. With regard to travel, I may have set the stage for a bit of that non-drama because in an effort to shield her from the what-ifs of a canceled trip, I rarely informed her of plans until they were set in motion. On more than one occasion, my little girl woke in the morning with no notion that by evening she’d be airplane-delivered to a new destination. In hindsight, that bit of parental protection had its own cost. We rarely enjoyed together the fun of planning a trip. There was no anticipation –only action. But then again, that may have well-suited my always-ready-to-go kid. Transitions were no problem for Alexandra.

    
Until now.

    
Are you looking forward to graduation? is the new question with which Alex is greeted by most every adult she encounters these days. To which she gives an honest reply: no.

    
And she’s not kidding. In fact, the simple word understates the passion it belies.




    Her no is pretty resounding. It speaks to her honesty (see previous post) and contradicts her resilience (see previous post). 

    
But it really isn’t that hard to understand.




    She’s happy. Happy where she is, with what she’s doing, and most importantly with who she is.

    
Alexa (her choice of name-change, not mine) is a beautiful 21-year-old college senior. She has a good group of friends, a couple of part-time jobs, a family who loves and supports her. 

    
Life is good.




    But it hasn’t always been.




    For big reasons and little ones, Alexa has suffered her share of life’s disappointments. But she’s reached the other side of a whole lot of them, now. And the view from this end of the tunnel is pretty good. 

    
What’s damn scary, though, is what comes next.




    Mostly because she doesn’t know what that is.




    And it’s the not knowing that’s pulling her through the stages of grief she recently posted as her Facebook status. Not knowing is scary. But by now, there’s a whole lot of stuff she should know.

    
Someone should tell her.




    Oh God, that someone’s probably me.




    Sweetie, you should know, and more importantly believe, what I’ve always told you: that every day you do something that makes me proud.
 
    
You should know that, although she’s still inside you, you are not the third-grader who had to suffer the torment of other girls. You no longer have to temper your exuberance to the expectations of others; you’re not bound by their constraints. The women in your life now seem to get you and I think, love you in part, because of the very spirit that you’ve sometimes tried to hide.




    I am so glad that you believe your sisters have your back. But long before they came into your life, you had a HUGE family who would do anything for you. You got that free, had it from the get-go. 

    
All the other stuff, you earned –big time.

    
You deserve the diploma, but also a whole lot of accolades that go along with it. Not only because of who you are, but also because of who you have become.




    You are an amazing young woman. You are savvy and sure and resilient, but also warm and passionate and caring. You have a depth of emotions, and you shouldn’t fear the weight of their pull. You’re strong enough now to weather the tide and the turbulence. Literally, from the day you were born, you were fighting a battle. But you’ve always won. And you always will.




    That I believe this should count for something. I still think I know you better than anyone. That I believe in you should count for more.




    Trust me.




    Or better still, trust yourself.



Peter Pan

    I can’t blame them really. There are days when I still don’t want to grow up. And I’ve been here for awhile.

    
So when my daughter expresses full-blown panic at the notion of graduating college and my son’s teacher suggests, quite benevolently, that he would perhaps benefit from a year alone on an island with just he and his guitar, I get it.

    I get that prelude to panic, the anxiety -although it was never a word we used – as my students begin their tiptoed-tread to the threshold of the real world. They want the independence, the sense of accomplishment, even a bit of the responsibility, perhaps, just not all of it. 

    They’d like to hit the pause button for a year or two –or more.



    And with the support of a science that seems to keep pushing back the maturation date on the prefrontal cortex, a whole lot of semi-adults are screeching to a skidded halt just before that scary doorway to grownup.

    
Emerging adulthood?  

    
Seriously, was there really a need to coin a new developmental phase of human existence for a crutch we created? 

    And create it we did. 

    
All those of us who constructed well-arranged playdates for our toddlers rather than risk the riff-raff of a roughhousing playground.  We didn’t just child-proof and germ-proof their worlds, we life-proofed them. With scary scenarios of child abductions, we bought leashes (sorry –that’s what they were) and held on way too tightly. My go-to response has never been panic, but even I can remember a moment or two when a lost kid sent me head-long into the worst-case scenarios of my unadmitted nightmares. Did someone grab the too-willing-to-go toddler from the water slide? Would I be one to regret the delay in summoning authorities to the shoveled off pond and the lost boys?

    I think we all start off a little crazy; it’s just that kids can turn us from semi-sane to certifiable.




    The best of us fight against it. But too many of us don’t even approach best.

    If a time machine propelled me back, I would probably have laughed out loud at the notion that my friend would become one of the best parents I know. Save for a great foundation, all signs pointed to her continuing her life-party well into adulthood, regardless of kid number one, two, three or four. Her early sense of priorities were on display when she took a pass on the well-planned proposal dinner at the frou-frou fancy skyscraper restaurant to come to a BYOB beach party I was throwing. 

    That was the girl I knew.




    Until she had kids. 

    When they were still toddlers, we shoved our offspring together for our own version of the protected playdate. My friend would often come to my house on the road to a museum, a park or a zoo. Come inside –in spite of my dog and her phobia of the furry guy. Rather than put her fear on full display, though, she’d tough it up for her kids, coo-cooing as she patted Nicki and encouraged her kids to do the same. All through gritted teeth, mind you, with the motivation being that she was giving her kids something she didn’t have. She recognized her unfounded fear for what it was and didn’t want to pass it along.

    That’s the best of us. Putting aside our own fears and neuroses for the sake of giving our kids a saner version of a crazy world.

    My friends and I didn’t overanalyze the job our parents did. I’d say most of us didn’t give it much thought at all. Until we had kids of our own. Then, it mattered. And most of us probably gave them due credit, but still had the audacity to think that we could do better. 

    Just a little bit better.

    Maybe not.

    In our efforts to do –we’ve done too much. And while the hands-on approach works well on some level, it’s that hands-off approach that forces kids to become adults. Navigating the world more on our own got my friends and me out the door. I’m not sure what will do the same for our children.

    But I have an idea.

    Teenage boys are supposed to pull away from their parents. There are a gazillion books explaining the how/when/why of it. All I know is that on our home front, it’s true with gusto. Save for feeding him and financing his whims, Michael would prefer we stay entirely out of his life.
 
    If I were smart, I’d fully oblige.
 
    Unfortunately, old habits die way too hard. I find myself in a pendulum pull of inconsistency that I managed to well avoid when I was disciplining toddlers. On one end of the arc, I willingly let him go. But then on a pivot I’m sucked back by the gravitational force of expectation. Not only my own. But my expectations for him. 

    Michael’s friend recently said she saw “a lot of potential” in him, that she hoped he would “find his way.” Okay, at first I thought –wow, a 16-year-old with that depth? But then I thought to why I’ve always hated the word -because it has so much potential to be lost. And I want to believe that Michael’s won’t be. That he will find his way. But because it is indeed his way, I need to step away from our dance and let him go. When he’s ready to go out the door after all, it’s his decision as to which others he chooses to open.

See You At The Beach

                          



            There must be a mathematical equation confirming that the velocity of time increases exponentially with age.  Why did the years before I turned 16, 18 and 21 crawl?  And yet the time watching my son zip from two to ten, my daughter turn from dress-up to makeup, has passed in an eye blink.  When did “time flies” go from being the phrase of my parents to the refrain of my peers?  My rational brain knows it could not have been a single moment that began the process.  However, I can’t help but wonder if the bearing of children doesn’t somehow set that clock in motion at an unyielding rate.  I only know that the minutes seem a bit more swift of late, the moments a bit more precious.



            It was one of those frigid Spring afternoons, dreary and raw, when I bumped into an acquaintance.  Emblematic of our lives, it was a rushed hello and a dash out the door.  But before the goodbye, she said she’d see me at the beach.  Only in New England would a thermometer hovering still below 50 prompt the notion of a day at the beach.  But the yearning is easy to identify with.  In the shadow of our children’s footsteps, we race from sporting event to piano lesson, from pre-arranged play dates to carefully selected club meets.  Perpetual motion behind the wheel of an SUV.  In such tiny towns, how is it we spend such an inordinate amount of time in our automobiles?  If our winter roads are so harsh how do we move so speedily through the shortest of days?  And the routine only accelerates when the clocks bump forward.  Spring sports verses end-of-year school activities and obligations cause universal conflict.  The holiday bustle has nothing on overscheduled children coupled with the rising temperatures of Spring Fever.  This break neck pace hurtles on for the too many of us who acquiesce to the race.  Continues, that is, until the summer bell.  Until we can tear up the weekly scheduling charts, put aside the lists of required reading, and take a moment to join in the collective end-of-year sign.  Take a moment, perhaps, to dip into the frigid Atlantic waves, turn the cell phones to mute, leave the wristwatches on the nightstand and spend a day at the beach.



            From my narrow perspective, there is a defining lift of burden with that last bus note, that last spring game.  It isn’t just that my own work schedule slows to a trickle or that it seems there’s less to accomplish and more time in which to do it.  It’s more a sense of the throttle decelerating, a life planing to a more even keel.  And it all harkens back to the day when cloud watching had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the dragons in their billows; when the walk to the post office really wasn’t about the bill in my hand.  With the caveats of the adults in my life who warned “how quickly they grow,” I frequented the museums and parks.  There were rambling bike rides with the little girl in back nodding off en route.  There was “Mommy and Me” day for the kindergarten boy.  On one trip to the beach, we went off on a tangent and instead took the subway to Faneuil Hall in Boston in search of the “rock dove” from our bird chart.  The commuters must have wondered about that five-year-old kid jumping up and down because he finally could check off pigeon from the chart.



            Today, the simplicity has been supplanted with the temptations of their twenty-first century lives.  While my children willingly maintain their position at the center of their own universes, there’s less space in there for Mommy and Daddy.  Instead, we’re often relegated to the neighboring orbit.  Held close by our gravitational pull rather than theirs, we hover with an assortment of competing celestial objects: school, sports, clubs, after school jobs, friends, boys.  It gets a bit crowded.  So my offer of a day at the beach today has appeal only if it includes the invitation to a friend or two.  Unfortunately, the time I enjoy spending alone with my kids doesn’t always coincide with the time they wish to spend with me.  I am not, however, so thick that I don’t take the time they still give, even if it’s at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night.



            All this to agree with what we all agree upon.  That life is short and time truly does pass by more quickly than any of us want.  And to offer what I am certain is unneeded advice to my friend awaiting the birth of her first child.  There will be a day in your future when you will have too much on your plate.  Papers, work, a messy house.  There won’t be time for the park or the beach.  Go anyway.  Ignore all but that tiniest of your responsibilities: that little person who’d love to show you his sandcastle.  As a matter of fact, sacrifice the manicure and dig right in. 




But sometimes they do



    Not that my blog is any sort of a democracy, but just for the record, I get that you don’t like its title. Totally understand, actually. Even agree.




    But I’m not changing it.




    I considered repasting the first posting to get this point across, but instead, I’ll just reiterate.




    I am sorry about its title. Mostly because I hate that word (see, I can’t even say it, most days)  In fact, prior to the decision to name it as such, there had only been a single instance in my life when I thought that the word “suck” was THE most appropriate word choice in the English language (even raising teenagers still pales in comparison). However, the level of frustration I reach as a parent on a pretty regular basis, combined with deadened brain cells and kid-induced restless sleep has left me with a dearth in vocabulary selection. I’d like to use another word. Just don’t have one.




    You just have to understand –this isn’t what we signed up for. We wanted those cute little guys in the pages of Parent Magazine: babies, toddlers, preschoolers. We could handle colic and night terrors and even those not-so-terrible-twos. Baking cupcakes for the whole third grade class -piece of cake. Riding the bus on the hours-long route to the fifth-grade field trip –let the little darlings scream and sing away. Hours on fields, in rain –and snow. Let it snow. Climbing Mount Manadnock in 95 degree weather just to reach the top with the sixth-grader -worth every upward inch.




    It’s just all this other stuff. It’s a roller coaster ride over which we have absolutely no control. The girl dramas, the boy idiocies.  All the bad decisions of my own kids and all those other kids to whom I’m way too connected.




    Usually it’s the day-to-day stuff. The us always telling and the them never doing. I never thought I’d be one to sign onto an Us vs. Them mindset. But here I am. Circle the wagons. Unless we gather our defenses, we don’t stand a chance.




    Stupid stuff really. Most of it genuinely not worth losing sleep over.




    But –




    Some of it is. Some of it’s scary.




    And the problem is we have no crystal balls. If we did, then we could look into that misty future where some aged version of ourselves is uttering the words: it was all worth it.




    So until I’m at the other end of the tunnel, I take whatever pinpricks of light I can find along the way. I’ll seek sanity where I can -vent to a few, blog to a few more.




    And, I’ll keep the title –because sometimes, they really do.