When our oldest son was born, everything in his life was surf-themed. The sheets on his crib, his little pajamas, his baby announcements, even the little custom-made covers for his cloth diapers. Yes, he had palm trees and surf boards on his little diaper booty.
See, his dad is a surfer. I don’t know another way to describe my husband other than “dad, husband, surfer”. He does other stuff too, of course. He has a job that does not involve surfing, but there’s something about that surf lifestyle that permeates our home and identities. Relaxed, beachy, outdoorsy (if you read that as “messy, sandy and wind-chapped” you wouldn’t be wrong), that’s who we are. A perfect day for me would be hours of boogie boarding with my kids and our friends, then lying on the beach eating chips, followed by cocktails and tacos.
So we assumed that’s who our kids would be, too. Ivan started surfing at age seven or eight, so when age seven rolled around for our oldest, we were surprised to find that our little grom wasn’t so interested in the ocean. I’d say he hated it, even.
My husband refused to rush him, which was great. The worst thing would be to make our kids hate the water by pushing them into it and giving them a bad experience. Instead, he bought and rented a bunch of different boards. We tried the Beater, a floaty long board, boogie boards of varying sides, and sitting the boys on the front of the paddle board on visits to Lake Michigan. Any time they got rolled, they would be miserable.
But the boys didn’t start liking the ocean until last year, when Izz started boogie boarding under the pressure of all of his friends. We were so excited to see him trudging through the whitewater and grabbing wave after wave with his buddies, floating in a row and talking about stuff we couldn’t hear over the surf.
But they haven’t really taken to proper surfing. Ivan handles all of this well, he’s cool about it and never pushes. But it got me thinking about the ways we just can’t predict what our kids are going to be good at, or who they’re going to be. The truth is, Izz (the oldest) really likes reading. He was so excited this week when I dug up my old first generation Kindle (the original, with buttons!) so he could read every single Percy Jackson book at lightning speed, no library card required.
But recently, something physical did connect with Izz. We went to one of those indoor kart racing places, where people (including older kids) can fly at high speeds on an indoor course. Izz got out there with 9 of his friends, and was ahead by a huge margin. He loved it. I could see his face smiling through his face mask and I was proud and amazed.
That is, until I saw him crash. It was such a spectacular crash that the operators of the track froze everyone’s cars (a cool thing about indoor racing – they can do that!) and jumped the stacked-tire partitions to get him out from under his wreck. All the parents were silent.
When I saw him flail his arm and move his head, I felt like everything else would be fine. That’s sort of my life’s theme: protect your brain, your spine and your air supply and we can fix the rest. And he was fine. In fact, he was perfect. He smiled and gave us the thumbs-up and raced away, winning the event. I was proud of him getting back into his car after what I imagined must have been a terrifying experience.
When he walked up to me after the race, the first thing I said was, “I was so proud of you for getting back on the track!” and he looked at me like I was crazy.
“What do you mean? Of course I did. I loved it!” He had even loved the crash. He’d loved all of it. He was electrified with excitement, jumping up and down and examining the race results. He hadn’t been afraid at all.
Before the beginning of the second race, I pulled him aside and asked if he might want to take the speed down just a little bit so that he wouldn’t crash again. He told me no, no way. He didn’t use the brakes on the first race, and he didn’t want to lose this one.
“Wait, you didn’t use the brakes at all?” I asked, dumbfounded.
He shook his head no, like it was so obvious.
“You have to use the brakes, honey. That’s part of the deal,” I told him.
“Well, I didn’t use the brakes the first time, Mom, and I won,” he pled.
“And you also crashed, and it was a sort of scary crash!”
“I thought it was fun,” he said, eyes rolling.
So I said nothing more and sent him out there, significantly more nervous than I had been before. My friend Rebekkah reminded me that he is smart and would naturally adjust to the new information he gained by crashing. I knew this was true, but couldn’t shake the anxiety.
When he was done with the second race he was smiling with his friends, but not exuberant. He’d gotten 8th place out of ten and was not pleased with his mother.
“You got in my head, Mom!” he said as he took off his helmet.
And he was right. I’d gotten into his head. I’d psyched him out. I’d ruined his chances at a sweep and possibly at becoming the world’s best NASCAR superstar ever. Or at least that’s probably how it felt to him.
All of this got me wondering about our jobs as parents. I know we’re supposed to keep them safe while teaching them life skills, but when does that stuff start to get in the way of their natural greatness? This kid had found his passion, even if just for that one day, on the track. And in my attempts to calm my own nerves, I’d gotten in his head and tampered that exuberance.
But what if he’d gotten into a crash and really gotten hurt? I know it’d be very, very rare at a place that is reputable and focused on safety, but it could happen. Wouldn’t I have regretted not getting into his head just a little bit, enough to get him to use the brakes?
In many ways, this kart racing day was a symbol of the biggest things I struggle with as a parent. How do I put aside my own fears and let them be who they are?
How do we maintain the balance of giving them skills to keep themselves safe, while allowing them to make the mistakes that help people build big and exciting lives?
I don’t have the answer, and I wonder if any parents do. I’d love to hear others’ wisdom. For now, we’re signing him up for a class at the track for kids who want to learn how to be better racers and I, for one, plan on keeping my mouth shut from now on. At least about racing…
Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project.