I stand on the edge of the baseball field, the hot sun nudging beads of sweat down my back, and watch as my 5-year-old screws up a play. Another game, another disappointment. While kids as young as 3 are hitting and catching like mini pros, my son is eyeing a worm in the dirt. Instead of running to third base, he’s spinning like a top. Rather than doing what he’s supposed to do, he’s doing anything and everything else.
Nate has always struggled with team sports. He has a tendency to go rogue — when his teammates run left, he goes right; when they’re looking up, he’s staring down. It’s not so much that he’s trying to be difficult as that he just doesn’t care to follow the rules of the game.
Time and again, my husband and I have talked about pulling him out of sports altogether, but we’ve always concluded that athletic activities are critical to a child’s development. Playing baseball, hockey, and soccer teaches our son valuable team-building skills, enables him to forge friendships, and provides a healthy outlet for his wiggle-worm behavior. “Sports are important. He’ll get better at them,” we say aloud, attempting to convince ourselves we are doing the right thing.
But today, standing in the heavy summer heat and watching the game unfold, I question our decision. The frustration is palpable. I can see it on the faces of the parents and coaches. Audible groans escape from the lips of annoyed spectators as my son lets a ball sail right on by. A baby in a stroller begins to scream, the perfect addition to the afternoon’s soundtrack.
I try to shut off the noise. I let the words “he’s just a kid, he’s having fun” repeat in my head, but it’s not helping. I’m embarrassed for him. I’m embarrassed by him. I don’t want to interfere with the coach’s work, but I need Nate to do as he’s told. I try to get his attention so I can give a stern warning to stop fooling around, but it’s no use. He’s too focused on his one-man dance performance to notice me.
Between innings, the coach gives the kids a break to grab a drink. Nate walks toward me, then abruptly stops, pivots, and heads to the bleachers. With a cheerful smile, he picks up a dropped toy and hands it to the screaming baby. He takes a moment — a moment no one else thought to take — to make a silly face and give a cheerful wave. The baby’s cries turn to giggles and he slurps on his toy, grateful for the attention. Then Nate skips happily over to me for a hug and a sip of water.
It finally hits me: My son is not screwing up. He’s not doing anything wrong. We have placed him in a setting where he is never going to thrive. He’s not interested in sports and doesn’t care to understand the rules of baseball or hockey or soccer. It’s simply not in his wiring. His priority is to experience life as a 5-year-old, to savor each playful, joyful moment and bring happiness to other kids. We, the so-called grown-ups, can get as furious and stressed as we want, but that will not change who he is or what he cares about.
After the exchange between my son and the baby, I feel a twinge of shame. How could I have let his personality embarrass me? How dare I allow strangers’ exasperation to affect my pride in my son? And why did I place the rules of a sport above his desire to be himself?
Watching the next inning unfold, I smile as Nate shakes his behind to make a teammate laugh. I clap and give a loud whoop when his team scores, and I allow the warmth of the day to wash over me.