You just keep trying

Fred woke up yesterday with a huge bounce in his step: he was going to his first soccer practice.

We had a bad experience with the popular recreational group that we’d signed him up for last fall, and this time found a skills training program for 6-8 year olds at another soccer organization. They’d promised a challenging but age appropriate and fun program, and it sounded just right for Fred who told us he wanted to get good at soccer.

And it was perfect. The kids started with various versions of freeze tag as a warm up and then moved into several drills. Fred had lost the self-consciousness and shyness that plagued him a year ago and he was right in there, running and kicking with everyone. But I could tell the moment that they lost him. The coach’s instructions began coming faster, and he was using expressions like “inside short, outside long” that Fred had never heard of. The other boys were running around, and I saw Fred getting increasingly bewildered. His pace slowed down, and when Max and I squinted across the field, we found ourselves asking outloud, “Is he crying?”

When the whistle blew for a water break Fred ran over, his face no longer able to keep the tears in. As soon as he was within arm’s reach he began sobbing, crying, “It’s too difficult…it’s too difficult.” We stroked and hugged and soothed him and told him he was doing great, that this is just the first day, that Daddy will practice with him afterwards. But it didn’t work. He refused to go back. He said it was too much, too hard. We tried everything to encourage him to go back into the field, but nothing worked, not even bribery of ice cream and Silly Bandz. There were still 30 full minutes left. I sat gazing out into the field, fighting back tears. Why is my child the only one to come crying off the field? Am I really pushing him too hard? Have I made a big mistake by enrolling him?

The final whistle blew with Fred clinging to my arm. Max talked to the coaches afterwards and had Fred meet them. The assistant coach came over and told us how he always ran off the field to his mother when he was his age, and how it took him 2 years to become good. And then he loved soccer and ended up going pro.

As all the children, families and coaches and staff walked off the field, Fred, with his eyes still wet, asked Max if he would practice with him. They went through all the drills that the coach introduced and within minutes Fred was smiling and laughing again. An hour and 15 minutes later, we coaxed Fred to leave so we could go get some ice cream. At that moment I finally made sense of all the thoughts that had been running inside me: He loves soccer. He is motivated. But he should not give up at the first sign of difficulty. Being able to know the difference between pressuring and teaching about persistence has been one of my greatest struggles.

Fred was so pumped up after the practice with Max, but our old conversation came back at the dinner table. Fred wanted to quit again and again we went through waves of understanding and empathy and exasperation and frustration. We talked about the Wright Brothers and Obama and other figures in history, about how much effort and patience it took for them to reach their dreams. And then I talked about me.

“What am I good at, Fred?” 

He responded: “Sitting. Sleeping. Eating. Watching t.v.”

And there you have it. To Fred Daddy is good at driving, cooking, sports, fixing things. Not only does Fred see me without hobbies or talents, he probably sees me without confidence.

I go through with him a shockingly long list of all the things I could have gotten good at but never did, because I had given up too soon:

Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, sports, cooking, art, knitting, ballet, writing, swimming, psychology (as a career). I remember so vividly how I broke into tears every time someone tried to teach me something and I couldn’t grasp it right away. The panic and humiliation were intolerable and I couldn’t go back. I had wanted to be perfect, yet the learning process is antithetical to perfection: to become “perfect” you need to make mistakes first.  

At 40+ I am finally trying writing and swimming. No, it’s never too late, I countered Fred, but how rich my life would have been had I not given up when I was a child. But perhaps more important than the skills learned are the confidence, self-worth and empowerment gained only through having achieved something through your own efforts. Fred does not need to become a star soccer player, but he does need to be someone who is resilient and who believes in himself. After an hour of talking, we believe we convinced him of this.

Later that night, as Fred and I were putting his toys away, I told him I was having my first swim class in two weeks.

“What should I do, Fred, if it’s really hard?”

He looked over at me and said, matter-of-factly, “You just keep trying.”

“I might cry though…”

He chuckled. “You just need to keep praticing, silly! You should practice in the pool everyday.”

“Okay. So I shouldn’t quit, no matter how hard it gets? Because, you know, swimming is really hard.”

Fred rolled his eyes. “No, of course not. You just keep trying.”

6 thoughts on “You just keep trying

  1. Cecilia I think you handled this quite brilliantly. Your son ended up telling you what you have been telling him, to just keep trying. No child wants to fail but some, like my daughter, want to know how to do something from beginning to end before trying, they want to master in one go without the trial and error process. I agree too it is hard to know when to back off and when to be persistent, so that your child learns that you do have to teach them about persistence.

    As for you, you already are a writer and I know you will conquer swimming too.

  2. What inner dialogue you’ve taught this child.

    These are the messages we say to ourselves, we replay the tapes we hear.

    It can be “you’re so dumb, you can’t learn anything” or “just keep trying, you can do it. You’ve done things that were hard in the beginning before, remember?”

    What a mother and father you are to that dear boy.

    I have no words to tell you how you are making him into a resilient body, and that will carry him through life’s difficulties. And there will be so many more, through each phase of life.

    I know, I like to quit early, too. I hear all the “I knew you couldn’t. You’re an idiot” words from my youth.

    I would have given anything for my tapes to say, “there now, keep trying, it’ll get easier each time. But you won’t know if you don’t try. Don’t give up. That’s the only way you’ll get to your dreams.

    Magnificent post.

    You can truly truly put words to paper, little one, you truly can.

  3. This is so well put. The line between teaching persistence and pushing is a tough call, and watching our kids suffer from the fear of not knowing is painful. Last spring, as our daughter was the only sobbing child at baseball, I kept wanting to quit. This is too hard. Just let it go. But we didn’t. She could sit on the sidelines, but we had to stay. And she loved it by the season’s end.
    I never knew repetition was such a part of parenting.

  4. Our kids have so many things to teach us don’t they? It’s so hard, not knowing the fuzzy line that separates forcing your child and teaching them perseverance, but as a parent perhaps we should trust in our instinct to guide them and us, to know when enough is enough, and when enough just doesn’t quite cut it. I struggle with this every day.

    My daughter is developing well but yet, in a daycare where she’s the oldest, I feel she needs a more challenging environment but then I ask myself why? Why does she need that now? And yet she adores learning new things so what is the right decision? Move her to a more stimulating daycare or trust that she will continue to develop as she is? I still don’t have the perfect answer to that.

    I am proud of you for doing the same for yourself. To recognize how hard you can and should push yourself, and how far you need to go. I am rooting for you. All the way.

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