Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Perez Tobias: Sometimes the best thing you can say to your child is nothing

Parenting is hard.

It’s been more than a decade since I started writing this column, and surprisingly enough, I have never started one with those three words.

Too soon?

I sure think it a lot. Like the Facebook meme I saw and then liked and then shared recently pointed out: “Behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s doing it all wrong.”

Yup. All wrong.

This time it’s sports. As my son, Jack, headed into an important high school swim meet this week, I doubted every instinct regarding what I should say to him, how I should act, what I should do if he and his team accomplished their goals or came up short.

The previous several weeks had shaken Jack’s confidence, persistence and pride. He’d cut half a second in an event one day and add two seconds the next. He’d waffle between swimming angry, Wichita State University-style, and swimming angry because he hated himself, hated the water, hated his goggles, hated the sport and everything it stood for.

He got the flu and swam through it. He came close, so close, to his goal time and watched it slip away like a brook trout. He had enough good swims to keep pushing through the mediocre ones, but rarely seemed satisfied.

Afterward I’d be on the pool deck, or in the car, or at the kitchen table scooping up another dollop of mashed potatoes, and I’d fill the silence with some feeble bit of encouragement:

“You’re working hard,” I’d say. “I’m proud of you.”

Chuh.

“Don’t be so rough on yourself. You’re doing great.”

Nice try.

A friend with older kids – including one as fiercely competitive as Jack – suggested I try something revolutionary, at least in the world of youth sports and overzealous parenting:

Say nothing. Let him work it out. Neither cheer nor sulk, comfort nor condemn.

Silence is golden.

Around the same time I read a piece on SoccerParenting.com titled, fittingly enough, “Dear Parents: SILENCE IS GOLDEN” (the all-caps is theirs, not mine), which promoted the soccer community’s annual Silent Saturday tradition:

“Are you screaming on the sidelines?” Todd Beane wrote. “If your answer is, ‘Yes,’ then stop. Stop now.”

I have mixed feelings about Silent Saturday, as I’ve written about previously, when my child played soccer. I’m a vocal, passionate, enthusiastic sports fan from way back, cheering to demonstrate my respect for athletes and solidarity with the team, which becomes like family. I clap and high-five and woo-hoo like everybody else.

But I felt like the overall message about parenting and youth sports was worth considering:

Sometimes the best, most helpful thing you can say to your child is nothing at all.

“When you squint through the sun’s rays and divorce yourself from the scoreboard for just a moment, you will find solace in silence,” Beane wrote. “And more importantly, your children will find themselves.”

I tried it this week, offering my son a simple fist-bump before his races and staying well away from him afterward, watching him talk with his coach and reflect on his own. I watched him encourage his teammates and smiled as they cheered him on. Instead of worrying about what to say, I said nothing.

I stayed on the sidelines. Not silently – the “Go, Jack!” habit is hard to break – but clearly and purposefully. And I grew as a parent.

Turns out we need coaches, too.

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