A lesson from the soccer field

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My almost-four-year-old just started soccer this year. As big soccer fans, we have been waiting for this moment for a long time. The day our son would put on his first pair of shin guards, wobble toward us in new cleats, and be as excited for something as we are!

This past Saturday was his first game, which is a generous term for a bunch of three and four-year-olds with one practice under their belts. The morning came with snow, which is rather rare in Georgia, but we bundled up the best we could, still optimistic, and somehow got his white jersey over his winter coat. He ran around happily kicking the ball with Phil as the coaches rallied the kids and talked to parents. And then, the game started.

It was a disaster.

Most of the kids ran around, shoving and kicking at the ball, and goals were scored about every 30 seconds. Our kid, on the other hand, did what makes every parent cringe. He cried. Almost the whole game. His demeanor went from joyous to panicked as soon as the whistle blew.

As first time soccer parents, Phil and I thought we had a plan for this but really had no idea what to do. We coerced, we (gently) threatened, we talked about being part of a team, we cheered loudly for other kids who were playing, we got frustrated, we gave up, we tried again. About thirty minutes into it, I decided to go home with our one-year-old, who was pretty miserable in the snow. The game only had five minutes left and Phil wanted some alone time with Jacob.

As I walked to the car, my first thoughts were “Well, there has to be something online about how to parent through this!” What do you do with an introvert who breaks down or shuts down on the turn of a dime? How do you remind him how much he loves soccer or whatever activity his is doing? How do you teach life lessons of perserverance and commitment when things get uncomfortable? What motivates our son? It’s not attention, or praise, or fear of punishment, or promise of a reward, or any of the things we tried to do at the game. As I considered what I would search for online when I got home, my heart was struck that the greatest Parent of all time knows my son more than I ever will, and also knows the right way to handle all situations, even soccer game meltdowns.

So on the drive home, I simply asked God, “What motivates our son?” And immediately he answered, “Safety.” Don’t you love it when God answers right away? Safety. Jacob is motivated by safety. That’s why at home he is a daredevil, a leader, a risk-taker, but on the playground he is timid. He won’t perform to receive accolades, but he will perform when he feels safe. As I pondered this thought, a much more temporal one came into my head. “I am freezing, hot chocolate will taste great when I get home. Should I make some for Jacob? No, I don’t want to reward him for how he acted. I can just tell him that if he wants hot chocolate next week he has to play in the game – give him something to look forward to!” Faster than I could form the thought (which is often how I know it is God), God said to me,

“I don’t withhold blessings when you have failed. Why would you?”

Touche. So when Phil and Jacob walked in the door twenty minutes later, I was waiting with a big smile and a cup of hot chocolate for him. I told Jacob I loved him and gave him a hug.

This week I have been working on how to respond to the word God gave me. Of course feeling safe is a bedrock for all kids, especially introverts, but I took it very seriously that God said it specifically about my son. The thing about safety is that I am the one who provides it. Jacob feeling safe is my responsibility. And it’s not me holding him or coddling him all the time, it’s him going out on his own and knowing that I will be there when he turns around to look for me. It also means me getting over my insecurities and talking to the other moms and planning playdates. If Jacob knows the kids on his team and is friends with them, he will feel safe. So even if I don’t want to sit around with the awkward small talk of getting to know another mom, it’s something I need to do for Jacob. So I wrote an email to all the team parents and asked if any of them wanted to do a playdate next week. Should I probably be doing this anyways? Sure. Am I dreading it? Yes. But I could wait around and hope Jacob starts to enjoy games on his own, or I could step up and make myself feel unsafe so that Jacob feels safe.

As parents, we are really good at choices and consequences, behavior and discipline. All of those are godly things. But being more like Jesus means parenting more like him too. It means giving blessings just because I love, not because they are earned. It means making sacrifices because it is the best thing for my son. It means showing unending grace in the face of failure. We are not as good at those aspects of parenting. Let’s start asking God parenting questions as our first resort, not our last one. He knows a lot more than any books or websites or articles.

Jacob’s first soccer game could have been a parenting fail for me. But fortunately, God is a much better soccer mom than I am, and he doesn’t let failures go by without turning them for good.

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