I’ve been trying to impress upon my college students that details make all the difference. It’s the finest details that I couldn’t see that day: the tears on my 7-year-old son’s face. I had forgotten to wear my glasses. I have pretty good vision, but the lines blur at distances. I could see his brown sweatpants among all the black running in circles on the soccer field, but I couldn’t see his face. My husband and I had signed him up for indoor soccer at his request. He tells us he likes it and wants to keep playing even though he spends very little time actually playing. He starts out engaged; however, by the last quarter, he spins, crawls, dances around the field and occasionally accidentally kicks the ball. I’m not sure how much he’s getting out of it, but as long as he continues to enjoy it, we’ll support him playing.
Last week, he rotated out of the game as usual. The children who were waiting their turn to play stood behind a white wall masking all but the tallest players. A few minutes later, the door swung open and my little guy stepped back onto the field and walked slowly to his position. He didn’t move. All I could see was him standing there wiping his arm across the middle of his face. I couldn’t see his face, just his arm pushing on where I knew his glasses were. The entire field of players ran past him, but he just kept standing there. They swept past him again, he stood still, forearm across his nose. I looked at my husband, “What’s he doing?” He replied, “I don’t know, but I’m going down.” Parents aren’t usually allowed down in the player area, so I watched my husband from the stands on the second level above the field. I strained to see my son’s face. My husband talked with the coach then called my son back to the sidelines. A new player was released.
I couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening, I wasn’t sure if anything was wrong but the knot in my gut let me know everything was not okay. I met my husband as he strode back to the end of the field. He said he didn’t know what had happened but our son was crying. I immediately wanted to see him. I walked briskly past the “Coaches and Players Only” sign to the place where my son still stood. I put my arm on his shoulder as he turned around. Then I could see them: the details streaming down his face. He threw his arms around me. His body shivered with sobs. He couldn’t talk. I tried to calm him down but he wouldn’t stop. I whispered, “I’m here to help you but I can’t until you tell me what happened.” He knew I meant it. We had a history, he trusted me to help him. He explained that a bigger boy cut him in the line on the bench where the kids are subbed in order back onto the field. When the boy passed him, he pushed my son in his face with his elbow. His glasses were knocked into his nose and hurt him. I asked him if he told the other boy that was not okay. I asked him if he told the coach. “No” to both questions.
I was angry. My son was crying and the coach didn’t bother to find out why. Another player on my son’s team had hurt him and the boy didn’t care. My son was upset and couldn’t verbalize to either stand up for himself or to get help. This wasn’t the first time he had been physically harmed on this team. I’d already mentioned the previous episode to the coach and now I felt like a Mama Lion about to cause a bloody scene. The coach was starting to look like a gazelle.
My anger subsided for the briefest moment, long enough for me to gain my wits and realize this wasn’t about me. My anger wasn’t the most important thing here. This was about my son and it was an opportunity to teach him how to be his own advocate. I know I’m not always going to be around and if I want him to be ready, I’m going to have to show him how. I asked, “Do you remember who did this to you?” He said he did. “I want you to tell the coach.” He replied, “I can’t.” I got down on my knees, “I’m going to be right here with you, but you will not be able to solve your own problems if you don’t practice using your words. We’ll do this together, but you have to tell the coach what happened. I wasn’t here to see it, you were.”
We walked over to the coach who was facing the game. In the tiniest voice, my son squeaked, “Um, excuse me.” The coach didn’t hear. He said it again, no response. The coach was engrossed in the game, calling out to his players. I could understand my son’s nervousness. I began to feel less like a lion and more like a sheep. I became self-conscious about feeling like a helicopter mother, the kind that The Today Show keeps criticizing. The coach was focused on the other players, as he should be. I hesitated, then decided this was more important than a game. I tapped the coach on the shoulder. He turned around. “Excuse me, my son needs to talk to you.” He bent down on one knee and asked him what was wrong. Between sobs, my son told him what happened. The coach asked him if he knew who did it. My son stood up on the bench and tried to identify which of the players in red shirts and black pants had elbowed him. I could see the confusion on his face. He could no longer tell which kid had clobbered him. They all looked alike to me, too.
I told the coach, “It’s more important to me that my son speak up for himself than we identify which player it was. Thank you for listening to him.” I looked at my son, “You talked to the coach and told him what happened. He’ll look out for you. There’s only eight minutes left in the game, do you want to come with me or try to play one last time?” He opted for play. I crossed back into the parent section. I felt sore in my heart. Why are kids so cruel? Would my son be ready for the next time? Would I be there? Is this going to be how it is? My son, the target of bullying, the next kid I read about in the paper.
I often read about the “hovering” mentality of this generation of parents, but it’s also juxtaposed against the “make your kids tough” practices. I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe in hovering, but I do believe in advocating. As an attachment parent, it starts with responding to our babies’ cries, nursing on demand, nighttime parenting. When they’re toddlers, we intervene with sharing squabbles and pre-empting hitting. With the older child, it’s harder to find the balance, but it is still nested in those earlier skills of being responsive and engaging in positive discipline. We teach our children life skills as they become ready. We model more and intervene less, but we still do it within our child’s comfort zone of our parental arms. They know we’re close by if they need us, to be their advocates, and to help them become their own.