Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August, 2008-- I want to be a grandpa

            When my son Liam was in kindergarten, I asked the boys what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jacob answered quickly with his usual, “marine biologist,” but Liam paused.
            “A grandpa,” he finally said. “That looks like fun. I want to be a grandpa.”
            While I knew that eventually I would need to break it to Liam that grandparenting was not a viable career choice—especially right out of college— I could completely understand why he said what he did.
            At the time, my father (the grandfather Liam saw most often) was in his early sixties and newly retired. He played on two over-55 softball leagues in the summer and a bowling league in the fall and winter. He ran three miles a few days a week, and often showed up at the boys’ soccer games on his bike. When the boys visited my parents, it was grandpa who provided most of the entertainment—taking them to the playground for a game of tennis, football or strikeout. To Liam, being a grandpa was the perfect job — deliver Meals on Wheels a few days a week, go to daily Mass and spend the rest of your time playing sports.
            While 10-year-old Liam is now old enough to understand he can’t skip over young and middle adulthood and jump right into retirement, his comment has stuck with me. Since that time, my dad has dropped his bowling league, but has added two hours of competitive table tennis to his weekly schedule. He’s 68.
            While Liam doesn’t know it, his desire to be a sporty grandfather has helped to shape decisions Bill and I have made about athletics and our children. Jacob, 13 and Liam are reasonably good athletes, but so far have not been the star of any of their teams. While many parents of children the same age as Jacob and Liam have their kids on competitive, traveling club teams, we have chosen not to go that route. 
            And part of the reason is we want them to be active grandpas.
            Specializing in a sport at age 10 may put a child on a path that will be more likely to include a spot on a college team, but studies show it is also more likely to lead to sports injuries at a younger age. It also contributes to a family lifestyle that is built around sports schedules and can’t-miss tournaments. I suspect it can also cause some children to over-define themselves — “I’m a soccer player; I’m not good at basketball.”
            Right now, in the U.S., children and sports seem to be having a moment of polarization. On one hand are too many inactive children—obesity and Type 2 diabetes are on the rise as too many kids eat chips and play video games instead of going outside for neighborhood touch-football or tag. On the other hand are children as young as eight and nine practicing four days a week and crossing state lines to play in tournaments against other third and fourth graders. These kids don’t have time for tag. 
            While the parent of an unusually gifted and passionate athlete has a responsibility to make sure their child receives proper guidance and coaching, gifted athletes are rare. Examination of data of high school athletes reveals that only about five percent of them go on to play NCAA sports — in any of the three divisions. Less than one-tenth of one percent of high school athletes go on to play professionally.
            While it sure would be fun to be the parent of Michael Phelps or Nastia Liukin, the fact is that most kids fall somewhere on the athletic spectrum between “pretty average” and “doing really well.”  And even among the kids doing really well, I question whether their club team is so incredibly exceptional that they need to leave a metro area of a million people to find another group of kids their age who can give them a good game.

            In parents’ effort to give the best to our children in all things, we may be losing sight of what the goal of athletics should be. With a few exceptions, we don’t need to be grooming kids for collegiate careers when they haven’t yet lost all their baby teeth. Instead, let’s look long term. Will Jacob rather swim or play baseball after work when he’s 30? What sports will my daughters Jamie and T have time for when they’re forty-something moms? Will Liam rather go running or biking when he’s sixty?  For all of my kids, it’s too soon to call it, so I won’t even try. I’ll just sign them up for one more sport through our local recreation department. And maybe someday, their children’s children will watch them and say,  “I want to be a grandpa when I grow up.”

Friday, August 8, 2008

August, 2008-- Before bed blessing

Five minutes before my children go to bed, I am not feeling very holy. They are tired and I am exhausted. There are blue globs of toothpaste in the sink basin because Jamie, 5, isn’t tall enough to spit right into the drain. There is often a trail of kids’ toys, books and clothes leading from the family room to the bedrooms. Sometimes I have the kids clean up this trail before bed, but other times, I don’t mention it, simply because I cannot summon the energy to supervise one more activity.
            Once the jammies are on and the final book has been read (I will not eat them on a boat, I will not eat them with a goat), the kids climb into their beds and I walk from room to room for a final goodnight blessing.
            It used to be that I just prayed with the children, I didn’t bless them. The arrival of our foster daughter, Teenasia, at age six, changed that. From the day she arrived, as I learned about the abuse and neglect she had suffered, I felt more and more afraid for her — and less equipped to be the parent she would require.
            A close friend, hearing of my fears, had brisk, no-nonsense advice for me.
            “Lay your hands on her,” she said. “Bless her every night. You can’t heal this child, but God can.”
            Not knowing what else to do, I took my friend’s words to heart. That night, as T lay on her back in the darkness, I knelt next to her bed. I placed one hand on her head, and traced the Sign of the Cross on her forehead. What to say? I didn’t want to alarm her by bringing up her past, yet I wanted a strong blessing to bring about healing. I looked within myself for what my deepest hope was for her.
            “God, bless Teenasia and help her to become the Teenasia you created her to be,” I finally said.
            Leaving Teenasia’s room that night, I thought about what I had said, and discovered that truly, this is what I wanted for all four of my children— that God would guide them to grow into their very best selves. I wanted each one to live a life that was a response to God.
            Now, ten months after that first blessing, I am still making the Sign of the Cross on T’s forehead every night— and often on my other children’s foreheads, too. I have added to the blessing — sometimes thanking God for Liam’s work ethic or that Jamie can now ride a two-wheeler. The essence of the blessing remains the same, however — a prayer that God will help that child to become the person he or she was created to be. 
            I have found that there is something about this act of blessing that feels different— that feels more powerful—than simply praying with my children. In the act of tracing the cross on their foreheads, I am acknowledging my own role as a leader and teacher in my children’s faith life. Because only I— not my children — am speaking during the blessing, my children are more open and receptive than they are at any other time during the day.  For a moment (and often only a moment), their chattering stops and they do nothing but lay still and silent, receiving their blessing. 
            And as tired and cranky as the kids or I may be right before bed, the before-bed blessing smoothes out the end of the day. It reminds both of us why we’re here and speaks to us of God’s plan for our lives. The before-bed blessing concludes my children’s day by pulling us both to a higher place—a place where God, if invited, will lead and shape.