Some kids have 'natural talent,' others have to work at it

"Jay and Jon are really good soccer players. They're the best on the team," my 7-year-old son said as we rehashed the Saturday-morning soccer games at dinner. I reminded him that these brothers are the sons of two former competitive soccer players and probably started kicking balls before they could walk. In my house, it's sometimes a different story.

My 5-year-old flies across the basketball court, the soccer field, and the baseball diamond like a gazelle. Ever since he could hold a ball, he's bounced them, tossed them, and caught them.

His brother, on the other hand, winces when a ball comes his way. He laughs as he runs on the soccer field, but he looks more like a burly elephant than a gazelle.

He prefers blowing the whistle and calling timeouts for family basketball scrimmages. He's the ball boy when we play tennis. In snow country, he makes piles of snowballs for his brother to throw,

then sits and eats them. My young Ferdinand the bull would prefer to watch rather than fight.

We've found non-competitive teams for our sons, and so far the coaches have been from heaven. "Good try!" one soccer coach said when my elder son's kick blasted the wrong way down the field.

But I fear that someday he'll be picked last, another player will tell him "you suck," or a coach will suggest he switch to scorekeeper.

"Do we tell him that sports aren't his forte, or do we pretend we think he's a jock?" my partner asked me one day.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't want to discourage him, or make him think we don't believe in him, but I'd like to cushion the fall."

I remembered all the attention my younger brother got for his musical talent. It made me quit violin and not sing out loud in front of anyone until my children were born.

I don't want to see my son discouraged by his lack of ability, and I don't want the difference between the brothers to drive a wedge between them.

My firstborn is a natural at math, drawing, and creating a multitude of things with paper, scissors, and tape. He can hike five miles without breaking a sweat, and he can cross-country ski on intermediate trails with me for half the day.

When he makes his brother paper money, booklets of mazes, and "Keep Out" signs for his bedroom door, the younger one looks up at him in awe.

"What about you?" I asked my firstborn as we talked about Jay and Jon, soccer marvels. I wondered how he'd classify himself.

"I'm just good, but they're really, really good."

I loved this answer. He was beginning to see the distinction, and the air of nonchalance in his voice told me it wasn't going to be a lethal blow after all.

"You know," I said, "some people have natural talent. Others have to work hard at the same things. You know how your brother is a natural-born talent at basketball and soccer, and you're a natural-born talent at skiing and art?" He nodded.

"When I was a kid," I continued, "I worked really hard, but I had trouble with math, and I wasn't very good at sports either. I was usually the scorekeeper."

My firstborn looked at me. "But Mommy," he said, "the scorekeeper is the best job!"

Kathy Briccetti lives with her family in Berkeley, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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