You can put away the Mother of the Year award. I haven’t won it again.
Last week’s column, in which I expressed my frustration over snacks at children’s athletic events, won me few friends. Believing that children will not perish from hunger during a two-hour baseball game puts you in an odd sort of minority. Those of you who disagree can take heart in this: At the boys’ first game, post-column, our middle son, Owen, 6, threw himself on the ground and refused to play because — get this — he was hungry.
When kids are home playing outside, mothers have to call them in for dinner and remind them to stop and have a snack. Out on the baseball field, however, they can’t go more than 30 minutes without a bag of chips. Why? Because we as a society have trained our children to think this way, just as we have conditioned them to expect goody bags at birthday parties and prizes after a visit to the doctor or dentist. There is a material reward for everything.
Many readers think I’m a fun-vacuum. However, if it’s kids’ best interest we are talking about, then the argument over treats after a game is a legitimate and important one. Participating in a sport is a healthy activity. Why must it be rewarded with brownies? We already know that childhood obesity and diabetes are national problems.
Being “good parents” in this context means teaching your children healthy eating habits. Conflict ensues when on the baseball field being a “good parent” is paradoxically defined as making sure that no one feels discomfort — whether it be hunger pangs, or the “pain” of sitting on the bench and waiting your turn or of not being picked to play first base. The children naturally want to feel good and have a reward. We as parents have unfortunately catered to them.
Predictably, readers also expressed frustration about baseball being during dinnertime and lasting two hours. This is an understandable concern. Except plenty of parents manage to feed their children a healthy snack before the game and then give them dinner afterward. Yes, that requires extra work, but we are mothers, the same people who can buckle car seats one-handed. We have never been short on creative ways to make things manageable.
A frustration expressed by parents who agreed with my column is the fact that dinner on the bench is a distraction for the whole team. Taking food onto the field is a safety concern, but eating on the sidelines causes undue commotion when the players’ attention should be on the game. It’s respectful to watch your teammates when they are up at bat, but seeing the game from the bench also provides more opportunities to learn the rules and strategies.
Of course, the game is not the only thing to be learned. Within a team are other life lessons, many of which involve uncomfortable things such as failure and disappointment. My fear is that we have become too opposed to letting our children experience these challenging situations. We want everything to be fair. There are no winners or losers. No one is better than anyone else. Everyone gets a treat.
In Florida, Ford played the outfield for the entire first season. He simply wasn’t good enough to play anywhere else. But he worked hard, paid attention and practiced. Getting what he wanted became a motivator. The next year he earned himself a spot at second base. And when he made his first triple play, he was rightly deemed most valuable player of that game, even though doing so potentially could have hurt other players’ feelings.
At the end of the second season, much to Ford’s disappointment, he wasn’t picked for the All Stars. Someone else had earned that reward. I resisted the urge to make Ford’s pain go away. Back then I wrote, “Sometimes, being a mother means letting you experience things that will break my heart even as they build your character.”
The best advice I ever received about kids’ sports was that moms meddling in the dugout interfere with one of the important rites of passage for boys: the joys, the pain and the triumph of baseball. For decades, the baseball diamond has been a place where boys grow up. They learn to deal with disappointment, bumps and bruises, dirt in their eyes, and yes, even some teasing from their peers. They become team players. They learn not to complain. They realize that meeting a challenge is the best reward of all.
I don’t think we are asking too much of our children when we expect these things, or when we expose them to situations that may not have a reward and might not be “fair.” In fact, I believe we are cheating them if we do not.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.