I was one of those shy kids who cried when I sat on Santa’s lap at the mall. I hated to be left at the babysitter’s house, I was in a constant state of anxiety about going to and from school on the bus, and I was traumatized on more than one occasion by the inexorable torture of trick-or-treating. The combination of strangers, costumes, and candy (which—with the exception of Reese’s peanut butter cups—I couldn’t stand) was too much for my introverted, insecure psyche.
But the fact that I remember visiting Santa, going to the babysitter, riding the bus, and trick-or-treating is testament to the fact that my parents didn’t let my fears dictate their actions. Whether out of necessity (the babysitter), convenience (the bus), or an idea of what all kids should experience (Santa and Halloween), they pushed me to face my fears and get past them. I still suffer a twinge of revulsion when I see mall Santas, and I never overcame my aversion to costumes, candy, and knocking on strangers’ doors, but I guess it was good to know that I could survive the horrors of being forced outside of my shell. The big bad world could be entered AND exited without my total annihilation.One moment of being “pushed” remains special to this day. The story sounds apocryphal when told, but I swear it really happened this way. I was eight years old, and my family was vacationing in Florida during baseball’s spring training season. My dad and I went to see the Red Sox play a preseason game. We lived in New England, so the Red Sox were our team, and had been my dad’s team throughout his life. His hero growing up was Ted Williams, the great Red Sox left fielder known for his amazing hitting ability and surly disposition.
Well, it turned out that Ted Williams was at the ballpark that day. He had long since retired from playing, but he lived in Florida and was a special hitting coach for the Sox during the preseason. As we were leaving the park my dad spotted him being mobbed by a pack of autograph-hungry kids. My dad handed me the baseball that I had reluctantly asked several lesser-known players to sign earlier in the day (I had avoided all of the stars like Jim Rice who had themselves been surrounded by autograph seekers). Then he handed me the baseball bat-shaped pen with Red Sox logos on it and said, “See if you can go get Mr. Williams’ autograph.” I shook my head and started to look scared. “Oh, go on, give it a try.” He gave me a good nudge. I hated disappointing my parents even more than I hated interacting with strangers, so I slowly trudged away toward the Williams-centered scrum.
I shuffled up to the edge of the group and—though I can’t remember for sure, almost certainly with tears welling up in my eyes—held up the baseball in one hand and pen in the other, without saying a word. Then, with the cacophony of boisterous kids yelling, “Mr. Williams! Mr. Williams! Sign my ball!” making me feel so small and weak, Ted Williams looked directly at me and said, “Hey you, kid,” reached above the other kids’ heads, and took my ball and pen in his hands.
I was still scared as I returned to my father, feeling anything but triumphant. I’m sure I was still anxious, but glad to be done with the traumatic experience. My dad beamed. I know he has been more proud of me since then, but I can’t remember his face at those times, so this is the look I remember when I think of how much my dad loves me.
Sometimes parents push a kid too hard to do things that are meant not to help the child develop but instead to satisfy some need of the parent. Other times, parents carry the “it’s for their own good” approach too far. But pushing is necessary. Pushing is good. And sometimes pushing at just the right moment can define the unique, unbreakable bond that all parents and children seek—and deserve.