Here’s what I love about my son’s soccer practices:
The evening breeze and the sunsetting sky. Watching him progress in each new skill with confidence. One full, uninterrupted hour of conversation with my mother-in-law, who almost never misses a practice or game. The sweaty pride that accompanies his walk off the field.
Here’s what I don’t love about my son’s soccer practices:
Just getting him there.
For weeks each season, I can count on the struggle we face on practice days. He exudes a sense of punishment around being asked to put on his soccer shoes. Or maybe he more than “exudes.” He gripes. Complains. Begs to stay home. Falls into pits of despair in which it seems perfectly clear that he’ll never be able to play with his Legos again, never be able to finish that episode of “Bunk’d” or have enough time to hug his puppies.
Because as his punished mind sees it, soccer happens all day every day forever and ever amen.
Reality has no place here. Reason is sacrilege. I’ve tried both to no avail: the fact of the fall season lasting a mere eight weeks means nothing. The reasoning about one hour from his long day being a drop in his time-bucket means nothing. Especially in the face of his reasoning: his ball is flat. His cleats are dirty. His favorite water bottle is missing its lid.
We’ve already paid season fees, and I’m committed to making sure this kid has enough time to expend some of his mountainous energy while learning about teamwork. Out of all the sport-ball choices we gave him, my son chose soccer. Knowing that, I’ve usually seen two options for how to proceed.
Option 1: “We’re going no matter what, and you’re done complaining right now.”
I will admit that this authoritarian and emotional-denial isn’t my style. I’m pretty married to the idea that it’s good and necessary to let our kids have their feelings about any given matter. The feelings won’t disappear if we outlaw them; they’ll just fester or teach lessons about how to turn off one’s emotions. I don’t want that for any of my kids. Or myself. So while I’ve said this sentence before — in desperation and when I’m not in tune with my true goals — I’m much more likely to go with the following.
Option 2: “I understand you’d rather stay home, but we don’t always get our way. How can we get to soccer and have a good time?”
This one’s usually followed by bartering for milkshakes, negotiations about timing, reminders that he’ll be allowed plenty of time for Legos before bed. He sulks away to the shoe basket, tugs on his shin guards and pouts in the driveway.
I’ve assumed it’s because of my liberal use of choices and patience that we can even get out the door on soccer days.
But some recent personal research suggests otherwise.
Because when he’s on the soccer field, he’s a completely different kid. He loves it. He positively thrives. His smiles can be seen from 50 yards away, and he almost can’t be pulled away when it’s time to go. He wants to kick the ball with his buddies, wants to run full throttle a few more times and then score goals at the unmanned net. On the way home, all he can talk about is “did you see my kicks!” or “I’m going to be faster than daddy soon!”
I stopped to chat with a friend after practice last week, when she asked how my son was liking soccer this year.
“He adores it,” I said. “At least when he’s on the field, he does. But getting him here is like pulling teeth. He acts like he hates soccer — says he does, in fact. I can’t figure him out.”
“Oh, I’m like that too,” she said. “Like, I know when I get to the gym and have a great workout, I’ll love it. It feels so good, and I’m proud. But leaving the house is almost impossible. I get it.”
Cue the proverbial light bulb.
I get it too. Even when there’s an event I’m excited about attending, the thought of putting on real clothes, closing my book, setting down my cup of tea and leaving the house sometimes feels like the most miserable form of punishment. It’s that feeling of exiting the warm, soft indentation I’ve made in my bed. The feeling of exchanging peaceful comfort for anything at all, no matter how promising.
The struggle with transitions, for some of us, may never go away. We humans exhibit Newton’s Law of Inertia all over again: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.
Color me the outside force here. But I can’t always be the force for him. My son will need to grow into the ability to understand his motivations enough to become his own outside force. My option 1, above, certainly won’t help him develop that skill; it’ll only create the requirement that a voice of authority is usually required to motivate him to some action.
And as much as I rely on option 2, it may be only marginally better. I’m still telling him what has to happen, even if I hope he’ll learn to face the inevitable with grace and creativity.
Maybe, after all this, there’s an option 3.
“It’s hard to leave the house sometimes, isn’t it? Especially when you’re already doing something you enjoy. Let’s make sure there’s plenty of home-time in between your soccer practices.”
I think I’ll shift my words this week to reflect more of an understanding about the challenge of a transition and less about the forced attendance, however enjoyable it turns out to be. At the very least, it’ll be an experiment in parenting.
And at the very most, I’ll help my boy pinpoint the truth of his emotions so he’s better equipped to express them as he grows.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.