An open letter to all the Little League shamers of the world:
We see you. We of sound mental health. We are watching you. But today, you went too far, papas.
Ranting isn’t usually my style. Forgive me because here I am about to place my high horse on top of my soapbox. Today my pen is my sword and it writes on the side of mental/emotional health:
Nothing very dramatic happened at first. All the comments I overheard were hushed. A father took his son to the field behind us to practice as we were watching the first of our son’s doubleheader games. There were many comments made by the father to the son along the lines of, “C’mon, you can do better than that,” stated in a frustrated and aggravated tone. (I don’t know about you, but I never really learn anything from anyone who is antagonizing me, as I’m too busy protecting myself.) Poor kid, I thought.
But the worst came after about 30 minutes of huffing and hawing and C’mon-ing. In a quiet tone, the father leaned into his son and said, “…because if you play like that, you’ll embarrass your mother and me and yourself.”
I sat vibrating in my silence. I turned my head to condemn the abusive father with a not-so-subtle, none-of-business-but-I’m-gonna-judge-you prying glance but he wasn’t looking my way. Instead I saw the boy’s face. It was pinched in. It was red in all the wrong ways. His face couldn’t hide what he was feeling.
My favorite definition of shame compares guilt to shame. If we feel guilt, we feel that we did bad. If we feel shame, we feel that we are bad.
And there is a big, big difference.
That dad was also a coach. And we were up against them for our second game. The other coaches on the opposing team were the same if not worse–goading, head-shaking, flushed-face, grey-headed dudes, prancing around in what only can be described as a cloud of testosterone that stinks like cheap cologne and is certainly as unavoidable. Shoulders tense. Jaws tense. And so much yelling. Not positive, empowering, supportive yelling but “C’mon-ing” and “You could’ve had that” and “get it together boys” head-shaking-in-disbelief yelling. They proved themselves to be much more like children than the 10 year old boys they coach. They even said purposefully goading and unkind things to get under the skin of the players on our team–to rattle them–intimidate them. They later bullied the young ump into changing his calls.
How old must they have felt when they shouted mean phrases from the dugout at a bunch of 10 year olds? How little self-knowing, reflection or self-love could they possibly possess?
Because I saw a bunch of grown men, filled with shame (which commonly masks itself as anger) parading around and working out their issues on boys, not their own, in ways that were in no way acceptable no matter where in the world you might live. These guys hadn’t read Kahlil Gibran’s On Children in The Prophet–they never got the message that our children come through us but do not belong to us. That we are the bow and they the arrows.
As a mother, I can tell you that since day one of being a parent, I have seen it as my job to honor my children’s journey–for the bright, beautiful humans they are–to allow them space to grow and be and become–but to know that they are not my reflection no matter how insanely proud I am of them. They are not puppets or dolls or mini-me’s. I love myself. I know myself. And it isn’t my job to make them become me or for me to become them–or try to fix or change them but to honor them for exactly who they are. And to be in awe of their beauty and to know it is their own.
They are not puppets and I am not their puppeteer. I do not use them strategically to gain anything missing inside my being. They are not stand-ins for my ego set out onto the world to prove my awesomeness (even though they are awesome). They are their own awesome. I don’t use my kids to fill in my missing gaps or try to redo parts of my life that went wrong. That isn’t the child’s job. (If I need a do-over, I sure as hell better get busy doing it myself.) Conversely, their failures and shortcomings don’t reveal my inadequacies but their own. Certainly, I am more whole and better than I have ever been because of them. But their gifts and strengths and failures and weaknesses are all their own. Not a reflection of me or mine.
And these dads don’t understand that. And probably their dads didn’t understand it either. And the cycle of shame-abuse continues as these befuddled, mixed-up, stressed-out fathers wrangle all of their hopes and dreams along with all of their failures and daily frustrations and they just take all of that out on the team. All of it. And as a group.
This whole cycle will just keep on going if we don’t say something–and maybe even if we do. It is our job to tell these parent-coach leagues that this isn’t OK. And you, parents of Little Leaguers, you wouldn’t let children bully your kids. Why would you let their parents?
In contrast, our son’s baseball coach smiles big, claps his hands from the third base line when his player watches a strike cross the plate instead of swinging, and he says, “Now you know what it looks like! Now you’re ready.” He is so good, in fact, that I just want to cheer for his coaching instead of the kids playing because he is the rarity–the ex-minor-league baseball player that knows the way to unlock the kids is through fun and support and loving kindness.
Sometimes it is all about learning the game and being on a team and learning to lose. And, yes, when we have had the rare coach who teaches the kids to have fun while learning the game, we have been likely to lose. Because when you’re up against bulldogs who just want their kids to win so the coaches can feel like they win–really you’re up against a grown man’s shame. And you’re probably gonna lose.
We all have experienced shame. Shame has one main quality: it hides–it doesn’t want to be seen. It makes you feel so awful in such a profound, embedded way that you’d do anything to not let that shamed part of you see the light of day. Shame burrows. It digs in. It makes a comfy nest for itself and it just stays. It moves into your basement, turns off the lights, and stinks up the joint with its vapors. Like a dead mouse rotting in the walls. But unlike that mouse in the walls, shame doesn’t want you to find it–so there is no showy display of stench, because stench would attract attention. And attention is precisely what your shame doesn’t want. And not just from other people. You see, your shame doesn’t want to be seen by YOU first and foremost. So you are unwittingly, unconsciously aiding and abetting a criminal, a terrorist in your being–the thief of your joy, your luxury, your peace, your self-love. It is holding you hostage and you likely don’t even know it.
And all you have to do is be aware of it to start eroding its hiding spot. Shame shrinks from the light of awareness. As soon as you are aware of the feelings of unworthiness and if you can love yourself in that hurt part just a pinch more (and maybe with the help of a therapist) then you can kick the thief out of your basement. If you can know and understand the source of the shame (a goading coach, a manipulative or abusive parent, a mean or ignorant child, a hurtful teacher) then you can hopefully open up the windows of the soul and let a bit of love in. And you can be free from the grip of shame. You can begin to see that you are enough. Just as you are.
This doesn’t always happen. And because of the insidious, hiding nature of shame it can sulk and contaminate us from within for a long time.
I have friends who think that a little bit of adversity is good for their kids. That it strengthens them. That the real world is full of adversity and they need a slightly thicker skin to deal with it. The world will certainly harden your children. As it has perhaps hardened you. And I agree with the book, The Blessings of Skinned Knee about that topic. Nonetheless, your job isn’t to toughen their skin, but to help them keep their heart open. To help them love themselves through all the hard stuff and never turn on themselves or lose trust in themselves or their instincts or their abilities–to never stop trusting their body. To know innately what feels right and wrong inside for them, and to express that and to stand up for themselves.
Please don’t stand for coach bullying. Please stand up for your kids. Say something to the league.
***end of rant***
On Children by Kahlil Gibran
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.