To cheer or not to cheer

"Nice stop, Abs!" I yell across the hockey field.

Abby, 13, pauses long enough to give me a baleful look, and then jogs off.

"You know, Mom," she says in the car on the way home that afternoon, "it's OK if you don't cheer for me."

Not cheer? Cheering for my children has been my job description since they took their first steps. I cheered when they held a spoon for the first time, learned to tie their shoes, and ride a two-wheeler. Abby looks at me with what I take to be pity.

"Mom, you know when you shouted: 'Nice stop, Abs'? It wasn't a stop. It hit my foot."

"Oh."

Then it dawns. "You mean, you don't want me to cheer?" I ask.

"Right."

"Oh."

My daughter has just fired me - ever so gently - for incompetence. In fairness, I'm not much of a sports mom. I know virtually nothing about spectator sports and find them as exciting as watching grass grow. But for Abby's sake, I've tried to grasp field hockey's finer points - to no avail.

The other hockey moms have explained things like "good stick work" to me, but the details bounce off my sports-challenged brain like so many foul balls. I gave up and fell back on cheering for what appeared to be a skillful or gracefully executed maneuver on the field. But after Abby's gentle admonition, I stopped cheering and just watched.

Then she went to high school. The school is small and the cheering section even smaller. I figured they needed every resounding voice - not just an encouraging presence with a Mona Lisa smile.

But I didn't want to embarrass Abby unnecessarily (though I have no such qualms about necessary embarrassment) so I made another stab at learning the game, or at least figuring out what constitutes good stick work. I hung out at practice with savvy field-hockey parents, listening as they critiqued. It was like trying to decipher Urdu, but at least I was there and trying. Then on the way to a game in mid-October, Abby rescinded the No Cheering Rule.

"It's OK if you yell, Mom," she told me. "Just don't yell any names. And whatever you do, don't cheer if the other team gets a goal."

"I can tell the difference between your goal and theirs," I told her, though in truth, I wasn't sure I could since they switched periodically.

"Just checking," she said, and grinned.

At the game, I was doing fine with the No Names Rule until Abby made what appeared to me to be a beautiful save. She not only stopped the ball just short of her team's goal, but whacked it back through a clutch of club-wielding young amazons way across the field toward the opposing goal.

"Nice job, Abs!" I screamed.

She looked over. I clapped my hands over my mouth guiltily.

"She's giving you a lot of hand signals," another parent observed.

"I think she's rescinding my cheering permit," I sighed.

"Join the club," the goalie's father laughed. "None of us is allowed to say anything. Except of course when we're supposed to."

Even for parents who know the rules, the teenage embarrassment factor is high in these years when our children are figuring out who they are and where they're going. They need and want our encouragement, but as they explore their own individual interests, talents, paths, it gets harder for parents to figure out the best way to offer it.

On the way home, I wait for Abby to chide me for violating the No Names Rule, but she slumps in the seat, unhappy at the team's defeat, a lesson in acceptance I can only stand by and watch her learn.

"I'm sorry I yelled your name," I say finally.

She smiles for the first time since getting into the car. "That's OK," she says. "That's what I was trying to signal to you. It was OK to yell my name, because it was a good stop, and I really slammed it back. It felt good when you noticed."

As our children grow, our parental job description changes. Children still need encouragement, but at times they also need us to stand on the sidelines, hands clamped firmly over our mouths, letting them get on with it without a word from us. Figuring out which is needed at any given moment is not always easy. We're bound to fumble occasionally.

But ultimately, it's not our expertise at either sports or parenting that they need so much as our presence in their lives, the visible sign of our love and support. Even if we don't figure out what comprises good stick work - or the best use of their abilities, gifts, and strengths - they need to see that we trust that they will.

In 10th grade, Abby traded field hockey for sailing, a relief to me since even from my remote vantage point on shore, I can recognize a good roll tack. I recommenced cheering.

She might not approve of the things I shout, but it doesn't matter. She's way out on the water in a sailboat hiked out so far she looks as if she will fall overboard. She can't hear me from this distance, even if she wanted to.

It's OK. The main thing is, she knows I'm here.

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