To Push Or Not To Push

Did you ever force your child to sit in Santa's lap against his or her will?  How do you know when you've pushed your child too far?photo credit:

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.

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4 Responses to To Push Or Not To Push

  1. hracing says:

    I wonder if pushing is the right word. I think it’s okay to lead our kids to the water, but you don’t necessarily benefit them by pushing them in. Perhaps introducing your kids to those activities that may be positive to is a great way to get them involved. But all in all, I think parents need to take a look at what our inpacts are when we make our kids do certain things.

    Santa, Trick or Treating, and the babysitter.. those seem to be a totally different issue. Really, what is the harm if you didn’t go sit on Santa’s lap. Nothing. It’s your parents respecting your opinions, views, and fears.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is something I struggle with as a parent. My son, who is 5, sometimes needs a little encouragement to do new things. However, pushing or forcing DOESN’T work for him. He just digs his heels in more. Seriously, he is incredibly stubborn and that is just him. Maybe as he gets older it will change, but for now I really try to respect when he doesn’t want to do something. I do appreciate hearing how pushing can be good at times.

  3. pmgrlee says:

    As the dad in this story I have to report that the Ted Williams event occurred as related. Also, as the dad in the story I have to report that I, too, am an introvert, usually much more comfortable inside my head with myself than with interacting with what often seems to be a confusing, loud, rude and contentious world.

    However, over the years I have had to force myself to interact with that world, learning much to my initial surprise that it has its moments of love, beauty, joy, compassion and even stunning intellectual engagement. I am acutely aware that my own personal growth along with business and financial success has been limited by my own introverted (or “shy”) personality. As a parent I have known these things and have striven with my two kids to “push” just a little to encourage them to be a little more open to experiences that might be a bit uncomfortable but might also open them to a more fulfilling, complete and rewarding life.

    Very early on my wife and I recognized that or job as parents was to prepare our kids to leave us and to go on to lives of their own. We knew that we could not protect them from all unpleasant experiences or people. Consequently, as parents, we encouraged them from a very early age to make as many decisions as they were capable of making. Then they got to live with the consequences of those decisions.

    We did not let them make truly disastrous choices but neither did we protect them from the minor to unpleasant consequences that came with the choice that they did make. Sometimes we encouraged them to choose options that we knew to be better than their preferred course of action. (Parents do, in fact, know more about what is good for kids than kids do; mostly). One of my most rewarding moments came as I overheard my teenage daughter explain to disbelieving friends that she, unlike them, had “no rules because she did not make bad decisions.” YEEESSSSS!

    Walking the line between smothering our kids with love and surrounding them with protective Kevlar and, on the other hand, allowing them to do their “things” was a terrifying experience but the existence of two very fine young adults who are still a bit “shy” but also bright, caring and productive people proves the virtue of the effort.

    I also remember with great clarity the look on Matt’s face as he proudly showed me the ball. He is wrong, though, about my being prouder of other of his accomplishments of which there are many and of which I am immensely proud. I knew how hard it was for him to approach Ted Williams and I can still see his incredible expression of love for me.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    It’s great to have Matt’s dad participating on this thread!!!

    In fact, it reminds me of a great story about my dad. He was always very gregarious, to the point where it embarrassed me. He would often introduce me to people or try to get me involved in conversations with other people, but I recoiled against this and withdrew.

    It wasn’t until high school that I considered the possibility of trying Dad’s way of interacting with other people for myself. I made a conscious effort to look people in the eye and say “hi” to them. I smiled at them and asked them about themselves. Dad had modelled this to me my entire life, but it took fifteen or so years for me to try to emulate him.

    When I did try, it became obvious to me right away that he was a very wise man, and that I had wasted a lot of years being shy and wondering why people weren’t paying attention to me. I became gregarious like Dad from that point forward, and people now have a hard time believing that I was once quite shy.

    What’s amazing to me about this story is how long it took for my Dad to have this influence on me. We often think that parents have largely made their mark on kids’ personalities by the time they enter school.