Our daughter and our older son were fortunate to be involved in school activities that I had never tried.
That meant I couldn’t offer much advice on how they should be performing. Our daughter played piano and clarinet and became an accomplished ballerina. Our older son played electric bass and tuba and varsity tennis. They seemed to enjoy those activities, and I enjoyed watching them participate.
But I didn’t really understand much of it. I quit piano in grade school, didn’t have a clue how a clarinet worked, couldn’t read the bass clef for guitar or tuba. I experienced exactly one-half of one semester of tennis (paired with volleyball in college physical education) and I was far from proficient in the sport. I did play rhythm guitar in a high school dance band, but I read chord letters, not musical notes. I learned to put my fingers in certain positions on the guitar neck to play an E-flat, for example, but I had no idea which notes were involved.
That was just as well. I relaxed, for the most part, as the older kids did their things. At the time our older son played tennis, parents and other fans rarely shouted. It seemed to be an etiquette thing. And people simply don’t yell at dance recitals or high-school music concerts or competitions. I certainly never once heard a parent yell, “Hey, judge, that kid from the other school missed the F-sharp. Didn’t you catch that? Open your ears.’’
Nine years after our older son, we had a second male child. He tried tuba for a while, so I couldn’t do much damage to him there. He also played electric guitar. I gave him one lesson, I think. I quickly realized he wanted to rock out, and I knew only big-band chords. We found a high-school kid who taught him power chords and distortion and slide and more.
Through no fault of his own, the younger son loved basketball and somehow let himself get talked into cross country for a couple of high-school seasons. Well, now. I did some middle-distance running, and I ran one state cross country race. I know running. I played basketball, too, one season as an actual varsity starter. I could give him the benefit of my experience. I had high expectations.
The thing was, he didn’t really want my experience. He didn’t need it in cross country. His only aim in that sport was to stay in shape for basketball. Personal records and gold medals weren’t a big deal. I suggested a few things, but I realized he was having fun doing what he was doing. I came to accept that. My own running career hadn’t caused minstrels to sing my praises.
I had more trouble staying quiet about basketball. I played center, see, and he played the post. True, our careers were 35 years apart. The game had changed. The fundamentals, though, those I figured I could help with. He didn’t think so.
He liked it when I’d hang around on the concrete slab by the garage and rebound missed shots as he worked on his jumper, but he had actual coaches for the other stuff. He didn’t need me breaking down his game performances. He knew what he’d done well and what he could improve. During games, he didn’t want me shouting from the stands, either, not even encouragement.
I realized eventually that both he and I had expectations. I wanted him to want to meet my expectations, which wasn’t fair. He had his own, and they were far more challenging than mine. Fairly early on, he made me see that ignoring my expectations didn’t mean he was rejecting me. He liked having a dependable rebounder at home. He liked having a couple of faithful fans in the stands. And I learned that he liked it best when I acted like his mother — giving him unconditional support and swallowing unrequested advice.
Khalil Gibran said of children, “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.’’ It took me a while, but I came to understand that is also true of expectations.