Keep Away

by

The following post will give you an idea of what sorts of things I might address here — and it explains the challenges an overly competitive dad has raising daughters.

Keep away is a game most children know. Two or more kids throw an object, like a ball or a toy, to one another while a single child leaps in the air or runs and tries to grab it. The game is known by several other names (Monkey in the Middle, Pickle in a Dish) and is played in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the game is organized so one person (the monkey, pickle) is standing in the center of a drawn circle while the rest of the kids stand outside the circle. The kid in the middle tries to steal the ball when the ball is tossed among the kids outside the circle. If your pass is the one that is stolen by the person in the middle, you are sent to the middle. So the person who takes the most chances, or is the least talented, gets punished and sent to be taunted (or mocked) by those in the middle.

The game, in some ways, is like reverse Dodgeball, a game where the weak and the less savvy are picked off. Keep Away is much more insidious, rewarding those who are more crafty and cunning in their choice of tosses or passes of the ball. Where Dodgeball rewards physical strength, Keep Away rewards those who fake (deceive) passes or who expediently (cunningly) toss the ball well away from the monkey in the middle. The crafty kid might even set up someone else by passing the ball to a player more likely to take a chance himself (someone who would pass the ball nearer to the person in the middle).

Played among friends, Keep Away can be a joyous, shrieking adventure. Played among enemies, it can prompt physical pain and heartache. I’d like to say I could never be so cruel as to steal one’s confidence in this manner, but I’d like to say a lot of things.

As an eight-year-old, I had been the frustrated, sad person when Danny Mancini took a kickball away during a game one summer evening at the community pool. Danny did not know his running away with the large, rubber ball was no longer a game (although I suspect he had never acted in such ignorance). He may not have known that his taunting had irritated me. And he probably did not realize that I would act on my feelings. Why would he? After all, he had pummeled this scrawny kid many times before.

There are moments in one’s life when we act viscerally, stepping out of our personas to fight for what is right – even if we are unsure what that means. We are sick of being the person in the middle. On that day, more than thirty years ago, I kicked Danny’s butt – throwing haymakers and upper cuts and smashing my hand into his nose until I was pulled off, yelling and screaming the whole time. Parents and older siblings looked at me, shocked that Danny, and not me, splayed on the ground crying and bleeding.

There are also moments when we receive ungentle reminders that we are the ones doing the keeping. At a new high school, I had befriended the wrong sorts of teens, the types of kids who would steal a classmate’s hat, toss it around while the boy chased it, and then hide it away quickly, forcing the classmate to go home without his prized possession. The next day, I received my own penance when this boy walked right up, asked for the hat, and tossed a right cross when I failed to supply it. I lost consciousness, but not from any blow to the head. I was told I had simply lost control during the fight, tossing some pretty good upper cuts and fighting my way out of a brawl against the much larger farm boy. At first, I was livid, wanting to lash out at the injustice of having been struck without warning. I was hurt and out of control. Even the assistant principal had to duck to avoid a left cross meant for anybody who walked in my way. Later, testerone prevented me from feeling the swift whacks of a paddle in the office. The bumps and welts fell back into my body years before the message did. The gentle boy who had raged against friends stepping on spiders, had nearly cried when others were disciplined, and had tried to help friends with homework had become the bully, a lesson that struck me as hard as any blow to the head.

Through the years, I went to school, worked as a sports reporter and then taught at a junior college. All the while, I gave little thought to childish games. (But we never really leave the playground. The vicious games are both more refined and more blunt when played among adults fighting for power in board rooms, offices, political offices and bed rooms. That’s why the birth of a child can be such a blessing; it can trick us into believing that our own youths were so much better, that the games were only games.) When my daughters were born, I tried to escape by rushing back to innocent days spent on swings and looking at planes crossing overhead as the sun set and of mornings spent catching tadpoles and breaking off cattails while wandering along a creek. I brought my girls to the park often where we would swing up and out near a hill that overlooked the Little Wekiva River. We would arc so high I feared we’d fall backward onto the ground. My girls also dug in the sand near the river, the act itself treasured more than anything they could unearth. And we would go headfirst down slides into the sandy ground.

But I soon learned that I could not protect my daughters forever. One day others would exclude my little girls from games and social events. As always, I worried. So I threw them into sports, where one is judged more on performance. (Or so I thought.) And I raised them like tomboys, much to my wife’s chagrin, believing eschewing frills and primping would make them tougher and more competitive. If nothing else, I understood being competitive and persistent. (My wife twice broke up with me and declined six marriage proposals before caving in.) Even as an adult, I hated to lose. In a game of kickball, I had thrown the large rubber ball so hard at my twelve-year-old nephew that he flipped and fell on his side. (But he had not reached first base.) At a family gathering, I had given no mercy during a game of croquet, hitting my mother-in-law’s ball so hard that it flew out into a nearby cow pasture. In recreational softball games, I had dislocated fingers, remained in a game after chipping a bone in my right ankle and had dived over a catcher in order to escape the tag at the plate (but I had not escaped regular visits to a grateful chiropractor.)

My daughters had to learn what it took to succeed, so I made them earn their victories whether that was during a game of tag or while playing board games. My youngest daughter, Sarah, inherently knew how games were played. She also hated to lose. When we played tag in the house, Sarah’s eyes dilated and her body trembled when I came near to tagging her. Even at four years old, she learned to kick it in when she needed, running a little faster when I closed in on her. She rasped and barely exhaled and feared me – as if I held a knife in my hand, about to stab her. Sarah played everything hard and well, a natural-born athlete with the physique and skills to match.

I was more worried about her sister, Kristen, who was eighteen months older. Kristen liked to play sports as well, but she did not appear to get upset over losing. But she still played pretty hard and obeyed directions. I believed Kristen had inherited the competitive fire until the day I nearly made her cry.

That was when I told her she had played poorly after her first soccer league game – at age seven. After the game, we sat in her bedroom and talked. Soccer, she learned during our conversation, was a metaphor for life. One needs to play more aggressively by running into a scrum of girls, kicking the ball away, and sprinting down the field.

“You do not just stand around and watch others kick the ball,” I said. “You need to get in there and play harder. Don’t you want to do well? Don’t you want to win.” Kristen looked intently, trying to comprehend – and trying to be the girl I wanted her to be. Her eyes moistened but did not drip. Kristen thanked me for helping her into bed. “I promise I’ll work harder,” she said, tightly tucked under the covers. “I love you papa,” she said before hugging me and kissing me on the lips. I paused at the doorway, where I watched my innocent little girl fitfully try to fall asleep. I was sure I would now be going to hell. Clearly, I did not know how to raise daughters – or probably even boys, for that matter.

I paced the house, and, when that did not work, walked outside and watched the stars, which prompted me to lapse into a reverie of my own youth. I thought of my own days on the baseball and soccer fields, playing for all I could, racing to steal a soccer ball and sliding hard into second base for a double. I especially lived to play baseball. I loved every part of the game. I was certain I’d be the next Joe DiMaggio, as my father used to say. On the field, I’d lay down on the sweetly mown grass in the outfield. I’d put my mitt over his face and take in the blend of leather and tanning oil. I also loved to hear my own father’s praises; and I responded immediately to admonitions. I lived to please my father on the field. My father cajoled me when I missed perfection, instead going three-for-four. But isn’t this how one pushes his kids to work harder?

Lying on a driveway in a cool autumn night, I was not sure what to do. But this uneasy feeling was not new to me. A few years earlier, I had a different conversation with Kristen, when pushing her to work harder seemed to make sense. Then six years old, Kristen kept losing her grip and falling off the monkey bars. She cried and said, “I can’t do it.” Each time she fell, I told her to keep working. “Believe you can do it and you will,” I repeated. One afternoon at Sanlando Park, she made it across the bars. “You told me you don’t want quitters,” Kristen had told him.

A few months later, Kristen took second place in a half-mile race at Bear Lake Elementary, but I knew she could have won. She had the ability to win, if she had worked just a little harder at the end. (Kristen would occasionally run three miles with me at night. She could run faster, for sure.) “She’s just too nice,” my wife said. “She might not have that same competitive fire that Sarah has.” Sarah had won her half-miler by finishing nearly two hundred yards ahead of the next kindergartner.

I decided I would apologize to Kristen. She had not played that poorly on the soccer field. I left the stars to other gazers and returned inside, not sure whether nature or nurture had developed this wonderful little girl. At breakfast, I managed to apologize. “But you were not too tough on me, you were just trying to help me,” Kristen said between spoonfuls of Cheerios.

Kristen played harder in the next two games – racing after each ball, and aggressively stealing and kicking soccer balls from even the much bigger girls. I praised her, telling her how proud I was at her efforts. In the fourth game, Kristen twice raced down the field on breakaways after stealing the ball, but she did not score. Her shots either rolled straight to the goalie or the ball sailed wide of the net. Kristen waited for words of praise after so noble an effort. But I found my words a little flatter that afternoon, knowing that had she dribbled the ball better, she might have scored a goal. “Good job,” I forced out. She smiled and raced off to play with her best friend.

A few years ago, I realized I had my work cut out for me. My wife does a tremendous job neutralizing my competitive fanaticism, but I needed some more role models. Fortunately, I found some on our college campus. In many ways, I had no clue how to raise girls. But I knew I had to try. After all, I do hate to lose in anything – but even more so when it concerns two people so dear to my heart.

-30-

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