[I dedicate this post to Dave Flocco and Gillian Branigan, two baseball-loving educators and wonderful parents. I am lucky enough to work, and raise my kids, alongside them.]
We were headed for one of those perfect fall Saturdays -- crisp air around and above the head, crispy leaves around and below the feet. My father and mother were due for a visit, and my father had promised that he would "arrive with baseballs and bats and old gloves." Hunter wanted to play baseball; Pop Pop, as my father is called in my home, was more than happy to pull the spiderwebs off his old, grimy, game-day gear.
Hardly a kiss and a hug were exchanged before part of the family was headed to the nearest baseball field. Things got serious in a hurry -- playing first base and looking up at a nearby tree, I felt a hardball zip past my shin, knicking it enough to alert me to the fact that practice was in session. "Wake up!" my father shouted. "Yeah, wake up!" my son echoed. I looked to my right and Hunter had morphed from a chess-playing, ninjago spinning boy into a real, live second baseman. I had never taught him how to field or look like a fielder, since he had never shown much interest in baseball. We had played catch from time to time -- with tennis balls and other items that wouldn't leave a mark as he learned the finer points of "watching the ball into your mitt."
I was about to say as much, out of warning, when my father tossed up a ball and whacked it toward second. I was shocked as the hardball gathered speed on its way toward my son. The ball bounced off his glove and sputtered toward first. I looked from my dad to my son to my dad and then said, "slow down, Dad. He's not used to this."
My father glared at me a little, told Hunter to get on his toes, and then cracked another hardball at him. This time, Hunter scooped the ball cleanly. "Throw it to first," my father yelled, and Hunter sailed the ball right at my chest. It popped in my mitt and I felt a dose of pride. The next thing I knew, Hunter was up at bat.
I was a little nervous as this game unfolded, thinking that, at any moment, a bad bounce or a wild throw would change the tenor of the afternoon. Hunter hit; Hunter fielded; I watched and waited. But the afternoon did not change except for the light that grew deeper and my son's skill-level that grew deeper alongside it. I watched him learn to field and hit that day.
As I thought more about my trepidation, I realized that it wasn't tied to the fact that Hunter might "take his lumps." He's a pretty tough kid and a gamer -- he doesn't mind roughousing on the way to meaningful knowledge. My trepidation (okay, let's just call it jealousy) was tied to the speed at which Hunter learned when he learned from someone other than me. My father didn't carry around the history of Hunter's triumphs and setbacks. He had no idea how long it took him to catch a lacrosse ball or kick a soccer ball; he had no idea and so no reason to finesse the instruction or try to make it palatable to any preconceived notions about how Hunter learned or didn't learn.
All parents want to nurture and stretch their children. All parents want to help their children reach their potential. But it's very possible, in a deeply ironic way, that we limit the extent to which our children can learn by consciously or subconsciously honoring their limits too much. It's very possible that we fall into patterns in the way we push our children or don't push them, in the way we challenge them or fail to challenge them, and that these patterns repress progress.
My father had no idea about my son's limitations on our beautiful fall Saturday. Or, maybe more precisely, I was the only one on the field that day who had constructed limitations for my son. My son and I had been playing within those limitations; my father and my son were not; they were just playing baseball.