Little League All-Stars. District championship game.
Bottom of the sixth. Tie game. Winning run on third. My son emerges from the dugout.
Standing with friends on a hillside above center field, I sigh heavily. I turn away from the field and drop my head onto a buddy’s shoulder. Anxiety and prayer come together in a moment of desperate hope.
Please, God. Let him have this one.
Throughout his Little League career, Ben’s had several chances to be the hero—those pressure-filled, game winning opportunities—and the wheels have always come off the bus.
“I don’t know if I can watch,” I confess.
“Are you kidding?” my buddy laughs. “Ben’s led the league in hitting for two years. This is his moment!”
That’s a lot of pressure for a kid: This—right here, right now—is your defining moment. Finally, at the ripe old age of twelve, all of your hard work, thousands of swings in batting cages, tee drills . . . it all comes down to this. All eyes are on you. Your team is counting on you. Everyone’s anticipating your next swing of the bat.
Ben steps into the batter’s box. He reaches his bat out to touch the far side of home plate and then plants his feet. He lifts his bat. The boy looks ready and in control.
“It will be the first pitch,” I say to my friend. “He’ll go after the first one.”
The pitcher checks the runner on third. Receives the pitch call from his coach. Takes one more glance at the man on third. And then he unloads a fastball headed for the outside corner of the plate. As I predicted, Ben goes after it.
There’s a muffled CRACK! The crowd erupts. After an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation, Ben explodes down the first base line as his teammate races for home. The defense is scrambling in a confusing blur.
Ben’s defining moment becomes swallowed up in chaos.
We have a picture in our family room of a twelve-year-old baseball player in midswing. A split second forever frozen in time. Ben’s final at-bat in the district championship game.
There is so much detail in that photo. The determination in his young eyes. The sweat on his royal-blue jersey. The fine blue lines of his pinstriped pants. The swing is textbook perfect as the bat makes contact with that outside fastball the pitcher had tried to sneak past my son to get ahead in the count.
However, the picture also captured one other heartbreaking detail.
Going after that first pitch, Ben did everything right. However, that CRACK we’d all heard from beyond center field was not a perfectly swung bat crushing the laces off the ball.
At the worst possible time, in a moment when he was completely in the zone, in his groove, and prepared for whatever was thrown at him, the head of his bat snapped off at the point of contact.
The bat broke.
The shortstop collected the ball and fired it to the catcher for the play at the plate.
“You’re out!” screamed the umpire.
Our boys ended up losing.
In a performance-based society that can be cruel and unforgiving to our kids, we need to reevaluate what we’re teaching them about success and failure.
I’ve watched parents go crazy with enthusiasm when a kid does well. I’ve also seen them go stone cold silent when things take a turn for the worse. That silence speaks volumes into the heart of a child. As a result, kids grow up desperately chasing applause, and that usually gets twisted into a fragile, warped sense of self-worth.
When your sense of self-worth is tied to the applause of others, you surrender control of your own joy—indeed, your life—and put it in the uncaring hands of strangers.
Our kids need to know they are loved, they matter, and their value is not handcuffed to some performance. They are far more than their successes and failures. We all are.
But how do we send that message to a child growing up in a world that is grasping for Likes, Followers, and ReTweets?
We learn to dial back the praise.
We should celebrate our kids for who they are and not what they do, and we need to become intentional about how we cheer from the sidelines of their lives. Whether they succeed or fail, Cal Ripken (MLB’s Iron Man pitcher, coach, and dad) urges parents to support kids “at a consistent level.”
“They [cheering adults] can drive the kids’ emotions way up and they can help them crash,” Ripken writes, and child psychology experts agree.
Praise can actually damage your children and cripple their development. “Praise,” writes psychologist Robin Grille, is merely “the sweet side of authoritarian parenting.” If you’re not careful, you risk crushing your child under the weight of your applause.
It’s too easy for kids to equate their performance with your approval … and your love.
After the game, Ben walked off the field and collapsed into my arms as he fought back tears. I hugged him.
“I’m proud of you,” I told him. “I love you.”
He’d played his part and played it well. He’d worked hard. He’d prepared. He did everything right.
But sometimes the bat breaks. A lesson for all of us, and one we should be teaching our kids.
I now look at that photo of my son in that beautifully heartbreaking moment and I refuse to see a broken bat. It’s one small detail, an unfortunate hiccup in an otherwise awesome display of who my son was becoming in that season of his life.
And after that?
Ben went on to play college baseball. He became a teacher … and I pray he’s passing on the lesson that every kid needs to learn: You’re loved. You matter. Even when the bat breaks.
Bert Fulks is the author of X-Plan Parenting: Become Your Child’s Ally–A Guide to Raising Strong Kids in a Challenging World. Follow him at BertFulks.com