The universe pranked me when I was given two very athletic children. Possibly three … it’s too early to tell with this young one. In high school, I had three varsity letters for a letterman’s jacket, but they were for Band, Theater and Klompen Dance (a strange little Dutch-American tradition you’ll only find in my hometown of Holland, Michigan). So most of this is new to me.
My oldest is an NCAA track & field athlete, and the middle one eats-sleeps-breathes baseball — a sport we actively initially discouraged him from playing due to the four times-per-week schedule and the fact I found it painfully boring.
Soccer? Sure. Basketball? Absolutely. Surfing? Please do (but sadly, they did not). Lacrosse? Why not. Baseball? No, sir.
Some kids rebel by listening to Speed Metal or forming a fight club that meets in the woods behind the Dollar General. My child rebelled by finding a Little League coach and asking if he could play.
What were we going to do, say no?
You can hate what your kid does, or you can show up. I suggest showing up.
The truthis, baseball is boring — until you start paying attention. Then baseball is stressful.
When you’re at bat, all the pressure is on you. The only comparison is a soccer player with a penalty kick or a basketball player with a free throw. The stands get quiet, and you know your team relies on you.
Pitchers have it even worse, a fact I did not fully appreciate until my son started pitching.
Yes, the team has to do their part and play defense, and the catcher needs to stop the ball and throw it to the right person at the right time. Both of these factors can win or lose a game.
It’s rare to hear, “That catcher sure had a bad day,” or “Outfield was not on their game,” even if the catcher did have a bad day and the outfield was a mess.
But the pitcher is right there in front of you. Their success or failure is measured at 80+ MPH from inside a little box with just two words: “strike” or “ball”.
This child’s pitching career has not been good for my nerves, which were already frayed by the nature of who I am: obsessive, anxiety-prone and emotional.
He’s been pitching for four years, and I still have to remind myself to breathe when he’s on the mound. If his dad’s at the game, I’ll take the opportunity to sneak away to the restroom or ask unnecessary questions of the moms volunteering in the snack shack. It’s too stressful to watch sometimes. Luckily, my kid is learning to tune out the world and focus on each pitch.
Today, however, was different.
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When adults accidentally teach kids to be cruel
One of my gifts as a mom is seeing every kid as someone’s baby.
Even now, with their patchy mustaches and foul mouths, I see them as tall babies. I’ll accidentally embarrass my kid by saying, “Look at all these tall babies!” when his friends are hanging out.
I will shout out a great catch and applaud a good hit for a kid on the other team. I say, “Look at that lil’ cutie, what a good catch,” even though the lil’ cutie in question has a driver’s license and can bench press 215.
When kids pop off unnecessarily on the field, it’s easy to see the frustration inside them, and it hurts my heart. It becomes apparent how pressure from a parent or the way players mimic a coach’s aggression when a kid makes a mistake during a game.
When my son was pitching in Pony League, a batter got so mad he threw his bat in the general direction of my son.
The kid got removed from the game, and every time he would’ve been up in the lineup, they called an “out”. In other words, he impacted his whole team, and we won.
Even though it could’ve been a dangerous situation, and I probably should’ve been angry at the kid, I’d been watching what was happening with the ousted batter before his tantrum.
His dad was one of the coaches, and his big brother — around 16 or 17 years old — was coaching from third base. When the ousted kid would come up to bat, the brother said things like, “Don’t [explenitive] out!” or “Jesus, Mikey, relax!” and his dad would be even more aggressive with, “What is WRONG with you? I said shorten up!” and worse.
When the bat was thrown, I shrugged. Of course, he threw a bat. I couldn’t even be mad. The adults in the room had created that situation.
The first kid I couldn’t find empathy for
Today I watched my son get up to pitch, loose and relaxed.
Three easy strikes and the first batter was out. The second batter was the same. Due to an error in the field, our team gave up one run in my son’s first inning on the mound. The game seemed to be going well.
When he was back up, it looked like he might have more of the same and easily struck the first batter out.
That’s when the other team’s dugout started getting rowdy — and not normal rowdy. As my son would raise his knee to start his pitch, the dugout would yell “WAIT” or “STOP” or shout to throw him off.
For those who don’t follow high school baseball, this is generally not allowed. I don’t know if that’s a rule or if it’s just an agreement, but I’ve never heard such a thing. Parents looked around at each other and at the ump, who stayed quiet. The boys on the other side just got wilder.
As someone currently co-writing a book about teenage boys, I often love these situations. It’s like being placed in the middle of a social experiment. Who over there is the leader? What’s the coach doing? What are the parents doing? Is it the whole team or just a few who are very loud?
I identified the ringleader standing at the door of the dugout.
I could see my son taking lots of deep breaths in, but not letting any of them out.
I exhaled, long and steady, all the way out, while looking at him. “Exhale,” I said in a voice too quiet for him to hear but that I hoped he’d sense. Sometimes, when I do this, the calmness inside me seems to spread to him, and he’ll let out a long, measured breath.
Not this time. His pitches only got worse. One was even wild — which his pitches never are these days.
They’d gotten to him.
I grounded my anger by studying the ringleader. Who was this boy? Why was he taunting my kid so intensely? Why wasn’t anyone stopping him?
He laughed every time my kid threw a pitch; loudly, tauntingly. His coach stood by, amused. I scanned my memory to pinpoint the position he’d been playing and came up with nothing. He was riding the bench.
The ump stopped the game about ten pitches too late and told the boys to knock it off. Bases were loaded and their players had reached a frenzy with stomping, bats hitting benches, hissing, name-calling, and loud laughter.
After the admonishment, when my son would go to pitch, the ringleader would mockingly say, “Shhhh! Everyone is quiet!” and laugh. His friends would laugh, and then they’d be silent. Somehow, this was worse.
Finally, my son struck another player out, and a pop fly was caught. The inning ended, but the other team had scored three runs.
As if scripted for tension and abject misery, my son was the first up to bat in the next inning. I moved to stand in the shade, about 15 feet behind home plate. I could see the dugout and the ringleader better.
I thought I would find a compassionate place inside myself to name the behavior of this boy as insecurity or the product of a bully coach, but I couldn’t. A moment before, I’d told my son “They heckle the people they’re scared of”, but I wasn’t sure I meant it.
I studied this boy’s face, his sneer, his laser focus on my son, and for the first time in my life, I looked at a child — someone’s baby — and felt zero empathy. And believe me, I tried.
Facing the failure of empathy
What was I missing?
For context, 99% of the boys I have interacted with since 2005 have been an absolute delight. Sure, there are some holy terrors, a good number of goons, some stoners, a few players, punks, scrubs, posers, and flatterers.
Yet, every one of those boys has shown me something lovely or vulnerable about himself, as well as humor, intelligence, sweetness, creativity, fear, insecurity, or simply the jittery self-awareness that comes with wondering if everyone knows you’re a fraud.
I watched this boy’s eyes meet my son’s near home plate, where my son was taking practice swings. He stared as he had while my son was pitching, eyes locked, one side of his mouth curled in a sneer. “Mad-dogging”, as we call it.
My son lowered his bat, turned toward the ringleader, and they locked eyes.
Usually, in a moment like this, there’s a laugh, and a guy will look away. An unspoken, “Aw man, I was just playin’!”
Not this time.
Instead, things got quiet. It was like watching animals square off. One ever-so-slightly lifting its lip to show a millimeter of teeth. At that moment, you know the other animal will cower or walk away — if not, you plan for blood.
But these aren’t dogs. They are boys. Tall babies learning to drive, not able to vote, and, at that moment, operating almost entirely from the amygdala. They need a coach or another mentor to step in.
On this day, nobody did.
The ringleader stopped smiling, stepped back, and crossed his arms. He was quiet.
If this were a movie, my son would’ve hit a home run, his team would’ve fought back from the deficit to win the game — and the kid would’ve learned a big lesson.
Instead, my kid RBI’d on a weak line drive that was dropped on an error, and our boys lost 4-5.
The ringleader and his howling followers were only marginally less obnoxious through the final inning. When they won, they ran out to the pitcher as if they’d won the World Series, yipping and howling like a pack of coyotes.
After our boys cleaned up the field and pulled tarps over the mound, my son stepped from the dugout, giant bag across his ever-widening teenage back, quiet and annoyed.
“That’s baseball,” I said, bumping my shoulder against my tall baby’s arm, now over 6’4”. He grunted a reply, and we walked toward the car.
As we got close, I spotted the kid walking with his mother. I nudged my son and said, “There he is”, nodding in the kid’s direction.
“Who?” my son asked, looking at the kid, genuinely confused.
“That’s the heckler!” I said, laughing. “How don’t you know that!?”
“Oh,” my son said with half a smile, “Guess I never got a good look at him.”
Joanna Schroeder is a writer, editor, and media critic. She is a co-author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Your Boys: 27 Crucial Conversations To Have With Your Teenage Sons and co-host of the iHeartRadio podcast Open Relationships: Transforming Together.
This article was originally published at Joanna Schroeder’s Substack.. Reprinted with permission from the author.