When Popular Doesn't Become You

10 year old Sam on the field

10 year old Sam on the field

My parenting is directed toward self-sufficiency, but there are times it is meaningful to step in as a more active coach and guide. Sam's decision to give up football was one of those. For years, Sam has aspired to fit in at school. Waffling between being emotionally worn down from bullies, and just not caring that he's a one of a kind guy-- which frequently means he is lonely, he has made various attempts to find activities where he belongs. Like most boys, he has interpreted the easiest way to make it at recess, and also in the lunchroom, with a single topic of conversation: sports. At 12 years old, 5'7”, a big bulky build, and busting out of a men's size 12 shoe, he's built for one sport in particular-- football.

Sam's made for football and he knows it. This awareness started when he was 7 and asked me to sign him up. To my chagrin, we missed the sign up deadline and he couldn't play. I've never really loved football; I don't understand it, but mostly I don't want my kid's head to have to do repeated battle on the astroturf. Concussions are not a small risk, especially as kids get older. Being the compassionate, connected mom that I am, I knew he would forget about it the following year. I had no desire to strap my sweet boy into a helmet and await his first concussion.

That football... It goes everywhere with us! 

That football... It goes everywhere with us! 

He didn't forget. Starting in February he began reminding me. It was like he had an auto-reminder on his calendar after that; once a month he would ask if I had signed him up yet. So we found ourselves on the football field that August, in preseason, and the harder he got tackled the happier he was. “Guess what mom? That guy was twice my weight and he tackled me so hard over and over again and it didn't even hurt!”

So it began, and continued. After football season last year, Sam surprised me a bit. He asked if he could find a group to sing with. Sam has always had an inner song, he walks around the house singing while he does his chores, sings in the shower, and at family dance parties he is the dude with the moves. Show choir seemed to be calling. We found Bloomington Expressive Arts Training. His sister auditioned too. They were placed in two different choirs, they both loved the experience, but I saw Sam come alive in a way I'd never seen before. He found his place. He was home.

I was ecstatic.

Last June that we realized that BEAT may conflict with football, and Sam's answer seemed clear-- he loved BEAT, but he would play football instead if he had to choose. BEAT's leadership is clear about their values: they build life skills in kids through the performing arts. If Sam's football practices conflicted with BEAT's there was no compromise. It's an all or nothing gig.

The time came, and indeed Sam was put on a team causing a schedule conflict.

Sam's pat answer was the same, "I'll think about it. I LOVE BEAT but I don't want to give up football." We talked and talked. He was clearly torn, but still seemed to be convinced he couldn't give up football.

Our conversation went on for 45 days. I suggested he make a pro and con list for each. On two separate scraps of paper he scratched the titles "football" and "BEAT". There were 6 pros to BEAT and no cons. There were 4 pros to football and 2 cons. Football pros were something like this:

1.  It is a good workout

2.  I'm part of a team

3.  We might get to play in the championship

4.  I have friends there


BEAT's pros were markedly different and something like this:

1.  It feels like home

2.  I truly belong

3.  I love going all the time

4.  It's a good workout

5.  It's the only place where there's people like me

6.  I'm accepted


Sam is a counter. He counts everything...I thought the choice had been made clear. He was, however, struggling now more than ever. It came down to the last minute in making this decision, not because we were procrastinating, but because we were really in the mud of the struggle on this one. He would be leaning toward BEAT, then leave for school and come home and decide he wanted to do football.

I wanted Sam to make this decision on his own, but he seemed to be missing true intentionality behind a weighty decision like this. Finally, rather than take a passive role, I decided to tell Sam that I thought he really needed to look at the lists and talk about them more deeply. What did they mean and why? What were they telling him? I told him what I'd seen: that he comes alive at BEAT, and that the list he had compiled didn't look like an even list to me. I shared with him my deepest truth about this problem: there are very few times in life that we have the opportunity to feel like our soul is at home in a group-- those situations are worth being treasured and cared for deeply.

He talked for a while, and finally he said this:

Sam and his sister Caroline after their performance this weekend

Sam and his sister Caroline after their performance this weekend

"You know mom, I think football is about who I want to be. I want to be accepted by the guys at lunch by playing a tough sport. I don't want them to tease me because I gave up football for dance and I want to be able to talk to them about what they talk about-- what happened at practice or who won the last game but I don't actually like it as much as BEAT.” Then came the real gem of realization, “I think that football is who I wish I was, but BEAT is really who I am in my heart."

It is a real gift in life to find a place that is who you really are at 11 years old. It's another gift altogether when you have the self awareness to treasure it. We are so grateful to the BEAT program for the community they have built, for asking our children to give their best, and creating a community where they are accepted by their peers and others for who they truly are.

Sam has a new confidence now. Even on his worst days, if he goes to BEAT he becomes completely reset. For me, this was a major parenting moment-- a tipping point moment of persisting in the depth of things, of offering a little experience to get him thinking. For Sam, it was one of many moments in his life where he will need to choose between the popular thing and the one that really is right for him.

As parents, coaches, and leaders, our opportunity is to help those in our care to know when a moment like this is at hand; to jump in with them and dig around in the painful mud until the right-for-them answer reveals itself. Those are the winning moments of love, and boy, do they matter.

Sam and his Bloomington BEAT pals hit it out of the park this weekend!  Watch til they shuffle.. They won't disappoint!