It’s not always easy saying no to my kids. Despite a lifetime of saying no to others in hundreds, maybe thousands, of ways, in various gestures, languages, and facial expressions.
It’s still not easy.
But sometimes I have to.
My oldest, Jacob, apparently has a good arm. This would be great news if we’re talking about a good arm for surgery, or even a good arm for cleaning his toilet. But, no, Jake’s talent lies elsewhere. Jake can throw a football.
For years, I vaguely understood this, but really, what do I know? Then one day the summer before he started high school, a few people at a beach picnic remarked, “Your son can throw a football.”
People stopped to watch. They stared. I looked a second time and yes, I’ll admit, even with my untrained eyes, I could see he throws hard and long, a perfect spiral.
I had to admit something that almost broke this retired punk-groupie’s heart: my son’s a jock.
Not the rapey-murdery type, but a jock nonetheless.
I considered my whole “no child of mine will ever play football” stance. It’s a risky sport, but weren’t they all risky? As I watched him play, I felt awful, like maybe I was keeping him from something he truly loved and something at which he would excel.
His father didn’t want him playing football either, but I worried it was my vote holding everyone back.
I asked Jacob what he wanted.
“It’s always been my dream to play,” he said, big brown eyes showing signs of hope, “but I never thought it was possible so I stopped thinking about it.”
Mommy guilt is the worst.
I told him I’d think about it.
I sought advice from parents who’d allowed their children to play football. Not one regretted it. Coaches insisted the sport taught responsibility, follow-through, and teamwork. It also kept kids off drugs and alcohol.
Current NFL scandals didn’t help Jake’s cause. My own prejudices confirmed with every newspaper article and story my children related at the dinner table. High school players are coddled and treated with deference, they’re excused and idolized in college, so it’s no wonder they think they can get away with murder, or assault. They can. This demi-god status is not bestowed upon them for being smart, clever, or creative human beings. They are indulged and spoiled because they can catch a ball and run.
But my son would be a different kind of player, a kind and considerate young man, who would elevate the game and its reputation simply by participating in it.
Then I heard about more injuries. In one week alone, three high school players died. Time Magazine put a young player on its cover, with the title, “He Died Playing This Game. Is Football Worth It?”
I thought about when I was pregnant with Jake, and his twin brother. Months abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, and feta cheese to ensure a healthy beginning for all those neurons and atoms that would eventually form their brains. When he was a baby, and toddler, we read constantly, listened to classical music and played with toys that encouraged him to think.
You know. With a working frontal lobe.
Parents aren’t wrong to let their kids play football. For some, it’s an appropriate release, a way to stay out of trouble and excel. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Jacob, while talented at throwing a ball, has other gifts, too. These are gifts that would be jeopardized by a blow to the head.
And that’s not a chance I’m willing to take.
Friends suggested I let Jake make that decision. No. If kids want to get Justin Bieber haircuts or wear designer clothes, fine. That’s their choice, no matter how much I disagree with it.
Parents make the really tough calls.
I read a column about a mom who recently lost her son. After he was tackled and didn’t get up, she ran to the field and saw his eyes close for the last time. That was enough for me. Not happening. Not on my watch.
I told Jake and watched him lower his head. He was sad. Thoughtful. He didn’t pitch a fit or curse or stomp his feet. That’s not how Jake rolls. He nodded his head and looked at me.
“I’m so disappointed.”
My heart broke a little.
As always, I told him the truth,
“It’s not easy to say no. You want to play this game and you’re a good kid and I want you to do things you enjoy. But I can’t allow this. You are ultimately just too important to risk losing.”
He doesn’t like to see me worried or upset. We hugged, he said he understood and that he’ll play basketball instead. And tennis. He’d be fine. And he is.
It still wasn’t easy. I suppose if parenting is easy, we’re probably doing it wrong. “No” will have to stand. Football can carry on, but without my son.