Little League baseball was not, for me, an exercise in stoking self-esteem. I hated myself for striking out, and I hated myself even more for weeping after I struck out. Fortunately, my parents seldom made it to my games; the humiliation in front of my friends was bad enough. For some reason I kept at it, though, year after year, and eventually things got better. By that I mean, I managed not to sob every time. And then, by the time I turned 15 or 16, a really surprising thing happened: I started to hit. So I started getting a little too confident. One day, once I had gotten cocky enough to start screwing around during practice, the coach ordered me off to run laps. The words he shouted (for the benefit of the whole team) at my retreating back still sound in my ears whenever I start feeling a little self-satisfied: “You’re not that good, Bennet!”
Yet at the end of that season (my last—I would go on to get summarily cut from a college team), he presented me with the only baseball trophy for individual performance I can recall winning, the Coach’s Award. I still have it. And so it was with a sinking heart that I learned, from Lori Gottlieb’s cover story this month, that, in the Washington, D.C., soccer league in which my own boys play, the Coaches’ Award is now given to “the kids who were picking daisies,” the children whose only accomplishment is punctuality.
Like many parents of children in that league, my wife and I wonder constantly what we’re doing. We didn’t play team sports so young; our parents didn’t spend their weekends catering to our interests and ferrying us among various organized activities; we didn’t anticipate a trophy merely for showing up. We are probably more involved in the intricacies of our children’s lives than our parents were in ours (sorry, Mom and Dad). But it’s not obvious to us that we’re doing as good a job with our sons. I mean, my brother—who repeated second grade and hit worse than I did, except maybe when he was hitting me—is now a United States senator, and I don’t recall my parents obsessing about him.
Gottlieb writes that parents of any time or class have always wanted to raise happy, productive kids. What’s changed, she says, is how our generation of parents defines happiness and success. “Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy,” she writes. “The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.” At the same time, wealthy parents trained to win in the new American meritocracy have found in their children yet another arena for obsessive competition. Whether the aim is complete happiness or overwhelming success, parents are, she says, setting their kids up for gnawing dissatisfaction as adults. It’s something of a paradox: Our parents’ generation, like generations before it, stood accused, perhaps unfairly, of pursuing their own interests, or bliss, at the expense of their children’s happiness. Raising children was more an incidental than a focal undertaking. Yet in obsessing about our children, in trying to feel so successful as parents, we may be indulging in a far more damaging form of narcissism.
In other words—much like in a soccer match where no one keeps score—when it comes to parenting, you can’t actually win. So maybe the real challenge is to relax and enjoy the game, even when you miss the ball.