Talk Is Cheap. But for the record, My kid is better than YOURS
The other day I promised my boys I would let them each take a free trial class of their choice to decide what sport/activity they might like to participate in now that we have settled into our new community. Two of my boys are already fairly active in an extreme sport, one of those boys in fact, so involved, so determined, his passion has practically consumed our lives the past few years. But like all things, balance is good, and sometimes the time comes to spread your wings, leave your comfort zone, look around, and try new things- just to ensure your passions really are just that. I believe wholeheartedly that if you don’t try other likes, how will you ever know what you love the most?
So, with this in mind, off we went to try something new. I often enjoy being the fly on the wall. Being a listener, an observer in a place where I am unknown is something I could sit and do all day. In those instances when others assume anonymity because they don’t recognize the face beside them, one can glean a great deal of their truth. On this particular occasion, while spending a few hours next to faces as strange to me, as mine to they, I learned a few good reminders about how to love, why talk is cheap, and how much I appreciate my children’s hearts.
We walked in, green to the world of gymnastics, although two of my boys attended a couple summer camps in a gymnastics academy a few years ago. They were not technically participants, as much as they were charges of a family member who was a staff person, and therefore by happenstance, my boys had the good fortune of trying out flips and twists alongside the paying customers, once those paying customers had all taken their turns, and while they were on a lunch break. So this day, was the first actual lesson as an actual student. The free trial, to see if this is something to invest their hearts into, or not. As I sat beside eager and overbearing mothers and fathers, anxious and bored sisters and brothers; in those chairs lined up against the far side of the building, a pretty fair distance from most of the equipment, students and coaches; in what I can only suspect was a quite deliberate layout, I listened and I watched, and for once, I said absolutely nothing.
At first they caught up on each others’ week. Exchanging polite and expected courtesies about it being just another day, same old same old, busy as ever, you know, thank God the week’s half over. The chatter quickly turned to the reason we were all there, alongside each other in hard, uncomfortable plastic chairs. It fluctuated between the upcoming fundraiser event open to the public, surely going to be a disaster due to the poor planning, lack of contributions for the raffle, poor leadership, expected bad weather, poor execution of the donation collections for the raffle, and oh didn’t you hear about the new ownership? What I thought you knew! Well I wasn’t supposed to say anything yet, but yes, I’ve known for ages. It’s still a secret. Sorry. Here text me, so nobody hears us and I will fill you in, but don’t say anything…. Seriously? To the general hum drum of being a parent stuck in the chair alongside the far wall in a gymnasium, for their child.
There was talk about pointed toes, locked arms, and how this one never should have made the team anyway. Lower, but still very audible by strange faces mere inches away in the chair beside them, whispers of her body type. Tiny half-spoken syllables, with darting eyes to feign confidentiality, ripping her to shreds as they watched her stumble on the balance beam again and again, not the same figure as the rest of the teeny girls. We watched on as she then was punished with a set of 20 handstand type moves from a low bar to a mat, well, she could use the workout I heard them say. The girl appeared to be maybe all of ten years old, at most. Still more low toned whisper-chatter about another one, how much extra time coach gives her, this tall, lanky beauty of a girl, with flawless movements, even a newbie like myself could recognize. Just because of her work on the bars, or maybe it was her tumbling scores at the last meet, some of their words I didn’t understand since gymnastics is not a language I am familiar with. She does get us points they agreed, but still, its just not fair to the other girls, its not like this one, that one, ours, couldn’t be just as good if they had special attention too. Apparently this girl is too talented, too hard-working for their liking. Too skilled, but certainly not more so than their own, at the sport they give their time to. Sitting, sedentary in those chairs, hour after hour watching their children and other children, for her to be skipped over in the conversations of these begrudged adults. Hoping their daughters, and perhaps a few sons, might instead be the focus of too much attention by coaches and by other parents, and instead be the star. So there can only be one shining star here? And each of these parents are spending
hundreds thousands of dollars and countless hours in these impossibly uncomfortable chairs in hopes that their little diamond will be the next glittering, gleaming hand picked? I thought to myself as I sat in silence. At least that seems to be the stream of thought coming from the chairs against the wall from the far side of this oversized warehouse. Critiquing and quietly coaching under their breaths from afar. Far enough to sit, but not far enough to stay quiet, and way too far to really see the joy on the far side of the gym. A deliberate layout indeed. No one seemed spared from the frothy air of disdain for each other, disguised as idle chit chat.
As the minutes ticked by, one by one, almost every child, and every coach, was picked apart. That coach thinks he’s God, that one never helps my girl until he’s done chatting with so and so’s mom. Well you know why that is, right? I felt my throat closing as I sat well into my fourth hour, feeling almost trapped- by the words I was hearing, the stiffness in my joints from sitting in those hard, cold chairs, and the gravity of it all. Two days of this back to back, because each of my interested boys got their turn for the two hour free trial class. Each day had been the same. Not a single hello, you look new here, which one is yours? Nothing. Perhaps two attempted warm smiles from the entire lot. In four hours beside a sea of faces all who looked like they lived there in those chairs. With bags of snacks, the right amount of water bottles, changes of clothes, chargers for phones and ipads. With siblings scattered about, ranging from tiny swirling and curious toddlers to older screen-pressed teens. We sat in rows just inches apart, of those uncomfortable chairs and uncomfortable silence, as strangers all together for the same reason: the kids. Some of us excluded from the cluck club, others leading it, the stars of this sideshow.
There were many other silent faces looking on; watching their spinning, tumbling tiny starlets, perhaps Olympians, in the making. None of those seemed too interested in a new face either. They gave their courteous nods and half-forced smiles to each other. Plenty of feigned excitement, happy nods and that’s so great! about the others’ child. She finally nailed her landing in practice the other day of the bla bla flip, all because of that extra hour she’s been getting with coach after he said she was ready to try this on the bars, even though the other girls are not trying that one yet in class of course. I also noticed the sideways glances at each other afterward, as both went walking to find their own cold empty seat, and caught plenty my direction as well. The sizing up of each other on these sidelines seems almost a sport in itself.
I felt somehow excluded from the heat of judgment this wall of plastic molded chairs was putting off. I had boys out there, after all. But soon enough I realized, the boys were not spared either, the circle of clucks was just smaller. As the sessions ended, and the floor cleared, leaving only the boy’s advanced team (the class which my son had been invited to try on account of his abilities and already being an avid athlete) still out on the floor, and their counterparts, still waiting over here against our wall of now almost empty chairs. It was easy to match up parents with the remaining four or five children. Blonde with blonde, exotic appearance with even more exotic appearance, daughter with dad who kept yelling her name when she’d attempt anything, she coyly smiling back, and the like. I was almost right on all of my pairings, as I was tickled to discover later after the class ended and children came for their water bottles and their affirmations. Parents patting bottoms and mussing hair, great work tonight! You nailed bla bla bla! But oh how I wish I could say I heard nothing but positive encouragement. I would say for every nice job!, I heard five more, what were you THINKING? What is WRONG with you that you didn’t finish that rotation like I’ve been telling you? Why can’t you try to make your front flip landing more like the way she does, that’s why she made TEAM and you didn’t. And on and on it went.
And one by one the sparkle in the eyes that I watched bound eagerly and energetically up to those hard uncomfortable chairs, extinguished. Happy smiles were replaced by indignation. Where two little girls, linked arm and arm giggling and laughing out on the floor, came up to their mothers individually, the insults and comparisons were hurled at them about their giggling friend, like arrows. And I watched their faces sink. They exchanged sullen glances as they walked past each other to retrieve shoes and coats and head out the door of this big cold gym.
Another moment really stuck out to me. The kind of moment that will probably stay with me long after I forget that day, or this post. One particular mother spent a great deal of time vying for the role of star amongst her clucking pals in the sideshow. It was clear this was her home. She had two young daughters there. One, maybe age four, had been in my younger son’s class the day prior. A real handful from my observation. A spunky, energetic, bossy little thing. She took over the class, and had to be “re-focused” several times for mouthing off and pushing other children. I just sort of smiled and watched on. This next day, mom beside me, unaware of my previous day’s viewing of her daughter, or of my existence in general. She spent a lot of time on her older daughter. Her moves, her hair, her style, her one on one time with the coach, her right to more. Oh, and in her words, her “diva-ness.” Little sister was wearing a t-shirt that read, “I’m the princess, and my sister is the drama queen.” Most of the other mothers who read it had a good laugh, stating to this mom things like, “Obvious much?!” and, “Did you have this custom-made for her?” I sat, uncomfortably shifting in my chair, silent. When the older child came over for a water break, she emphatically needed to tell mom a really funny story. She had triumphantly told a boy off who had mistakenly sat at a table near the cubbies of shoes, that he had to get up and move because that table is for TEAM girls only! I am going to go out on a limb and say she is in fact one of those girls. Mom laughed a little, said right on sister! And then, with more of a nervous laugh, as I glanced directly at her older daughter, about 6 inches from my face, and then back at mom, as if to say, I can hear you all, you know. Mom quickly retracted with, don’t act like that, you’re such a diva, you need to be nice! And without so much as a response, the girl flipped her ponytail, gave a wry smile, and bounded off across the room, to the far side, away from us all, away from her mother, and back to the gym floor. After the practice was over, I saw the coach come and separate this same mom’s two daughters, princess and drama queen. Princess was hitting Drama Queen after being egged on by drama queen’s friends and she for not being able to do the splits there on the floor in front of us at chair row. Typical sister stuff. Except, Mom didn’t seem to make any attempt to stop her daughters from this growing display, she was too busy discussing in low tones, that very same coach’s shortcomings. About her language barrier being hilarious amongst all the girls, who pretend not to understand her when she asks them to do exercises they don’t like. This mom was too busy, huddled with her fellow frenemies, to see her Princess or her Drama Queen, and that they needed her. They needed her to leave her familiar, uncomfortable, cold hard plastic molded chair and take action. So the coach, the very one I had listened to this mom spend the last 2 hours cutting down, went over to Princess, calmly and sweetly sat her in one of those cold chairs next to me, and said in almost a whisper, and in thick accented English, you are my sweet princess aren’t you? Your sister is not be kind to you. But is that reason for you to not be kind? Can you show her what to be kind? She then just stayed there, face to face with this little Princess. Crouched down in front of this child, for what seemed like an hour, though it had to have been only a few minutes, but without any sense of urgency, or appearance that she was needed anywhere else in that moment, but right there. She was not flustered, or upset. Eye to eye, she lovingly looked at Princess, hands holding her little hands together, and hummed in a low voice, a soft sweet melody. I couldn’t make out the words, but they seemed to be in her native tongue. Princess visibly calmed and began twirling the coach’s hair and smiling at her and began to hum along. It was magical. Mom finally saw what was happening, rushed over, glanced my direction for the first time all evening, and said to the coach, I can’t get these two to ever stop fighting. That’s just life I guess. Two girls, always competing with each other. This scene played out before me, and in that moment, after a long and tiring evening of cold, hard chairs, it was imprinted on my heart.
As I sat there, in a seemingly endless vacuum of un-comfortableness from every angle, I realized I am not much different from these parents. Ouch. This is not our sport. We are just visitors today passing through. But I have been them, on uncomfortable bleachers and fold out chairs alongside countless dirt tracks up and down the West coast and beyond. I have chirped about other children, other parents, other coaches. I have complained, and been petty. I have gotten lost in a sport my children love, while forgetting that its their passion, not mine. And that it is their playtime, not their livelihood. I have taken on the role of sizing up the new-comer. I have feigned niceties to the regulars. I have endured the stares, the whispers and the jealousy of my child as if I have anything to do with his own personal physical abilities, hard work and determination, all of which take place beyond the sidelines, as well as long after he leaves the track. I have also made lasting friendships, and had many joyous moments on the sidelines too. I have cheered on an underdog. I’ve been amazed by the ones who began as new and awkward, become skilled and dominating. I have spent more hours than I can count “out at the track” on the sidelines. And to an outsider popping in to give it a try, I must have looked like I lived there, because we practically did. No balance. No time for reflection, no real perspective. Placing an activity, meant to enhance my children’s lives, at the center of ours, forfeiting so much of everything else. Leaving no room to step back and see the reality for what it actually is. No matter what activity for my children that I may line up and watch from the sideline-
These children want to play. That is all they want.
They want to enjoy their time doing something they love. They want their parents to watch them. When they look out in the crowd after pulling off a proud moment, they want to see us smiling back. They do not want to see a back turned, engrossed in chatter about someone else. And they definitely do not want to see a look of disappointment for not exceeding our expectations instead of theirs.
They want to practice a skill until they feel good about it. They don’t want to be compared to the one who will always be able to do it a little bit better, because there always will be that one.
They want to have fun with their friends. They want to be silly. They don’t want to be required to take every minute of practice, the game, the race, the meet, the sport- so seriously.
They want to be encouraged, and not ridiculed by the adults who showed up to watch, and not just their own. But especially those.
They don’t want to wonder why some adults on the sidelines treat them like they are an adult too, who understands adult things. Like how being ignored is another way to show jealousy. So is being overly smothered in artificial compliments.
Talk is cheap. Parents get off your hard, cold, impossibly uncomfortable seats and show your child what it means to be a real star. Long after the sport or activity loses its luster, your child loses interest, grows up and onto the next thing, you will wonder. What did I show my child about what it is to really live: lovingly, with honor, with respect, with humility, with kindness. Those are the real stars.
Remember that we are all on the sideline, watching. Every one of us. We all just need to do our best in this life thing. Talk is cheap, show me what you’ve got.