With seven children, I'm occasionally tempted to consider myself a parenting expert. Then something happens to remind me I'm not - and that the little I know doesn't always apply.
Recently I had to relearn (the hard way, of course) a basic rule of parenting: Unspoken messages are frequently more important than spoken ones.
It was a clear, cold Sunday. I'd promised to play basketball with Michael, my 10-year-old. Today would be the day.
"You think the ball needs air?" Michael asked, on the way to the car.
"Maybe a little, but not enough to worry about," I replied.
"More than a little," Michael said.
As we drove to the playground, Michael studied the ball, squeezed it, pretended to shoot. "It needs air," he said again.
"Just ignore it," I told him.
At the playground, on the only court not overrun by players, a lone boy dribbled and shot. "Mind if we join you?" I asked.
The boy shook his head. He was maybe two years older than Michael. Despite the cold, he'd pulled off his jacket and was playing in only a T-shirt.
I watched him sink a jump shot, then turned to my son.
Michael missed his first two shots.
"The ball needs air," he complained.
"It's OK," I replied.
"It's not. I can't shoot when it doesn't have air," he said.
I sighed - and recalled that when I was a boy we'd played with dead balls, live balls - even balls with the lining pushing through tears in the cover.
"It has air," I offered. "Besides, air has nothing to do with shooting."
"It does," Michael said. "The ball's heavier."
"Oh, no," Michael argued.
He shot again and missed. "See," he said.
I picked up the ball, bounced it, tossed up a shot. Surprisingly, it went in.
"Good shot," the boy said.
He was bouncing his ball between his legs.
When he lofted a one-hander that missed, I grabbed the rebound and snapped him a pass.
"Thanks," he said.
When Michael fired up another shot, I retrieved his ball and snapped him a pass.
Too hard, I thought, as the ball zipped between his hands and struck him in the solar plexus. He bent forward, his eyes filling with tears.
"You OK?" I asked.
He nodded, then straightened up, then, after a few seconds, tried another shot.
It missed - as did the next, and the next.
"Take off your jacket," I suggested.
"It's freezing," Michael said.
I shook my head. I was getting nowhere.
A few minutes later, the ball rolled past Michael into a puddle.
He stared at it.
"Well?" I said.
"It's wet over there. Besides..."
"We just got here!"
"It's cold. And I can't shoot with this ball."
I walked to the puddle, and picked up the ball. What had happened to our afternoon?
Back at the house, I asked myself the same question.
The answer, I decided, was simple: Michael had wanted to impress me, but was afraid he might not do well. So he took advantage of an available excuse: the deflated ball.
As his missed shots piled up, so did the excuses. And I, instead of realizing he was sending distress signals, scoffed.
And, worse, I compared him - in ways that no doubt showed - with me - and the other boy.
I glanced into the dining room. Michael was sitting at the table, shuffling a deck of cards.
"Wanna play Nooks?" he asked. (Nooks is a card game he'd learned recently, then taught me.)
"Sure," I said.
Michael shuffled the cards "bridging" them in his cupped hands.
"Pretty good," I remarked awkwardly.
"I've been practicing."
"I can't do it," I said.
"Oh," Michael replied.
He bridged the cards again, then dealt them.
We played a game, another, a third. Slowly, the tension dissipated.
"You trying your hardest?" Michael asked. (He'd won all three games.)
"Sure," I said.
"You better be."
I smiled (his invitation to play had been another message - this time one of healing).
"We should play next week," I offered.
"Oh," Michael said. His eyes shifted downward; his grip on his cards tightened.
"You know, you're right," I went on.
"The ball. It needs air."
"Oh," Michael said.
He studied his cards for a moment. Then a smile crept across his face, and he tossed down a winner.
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