A few weeks ago, my 14-year-old son, Yosef, had a decision to make. Would his fall sport of choice be football or cross country?
While insignificant compared to the major world issues engulfing the news each night, this choice was important to him. Yosef was entering a new high school where roster spots on any other athletic team would be nearly impossible to come by.
As the season drew nearer, my wife and I detected Yosef’s self-induced pressure to make a fall sports pick was mounting. My son understood his mother and I would support any decision. I’m sure my son also understood his parents approached the choice from different perspectives.
My wife is a highly competitive type who wants to win – at everything. If she senses an ability to excel, she’s in. If not, she would choose not to go through the motions. If she were faced with the same choice as Yosef, cross country would win out.
That point of view is completely defensible here. After all, Yosef weighs less than 100 pounds, and sat the bench in his one stint as a football player in a Pop Warner team several years ago. Cross country was the hands-down choice from the perspective of playing to succeed athletically.
I am less athletic and less competitive than my wife. I like to win but would not forgo participating on a team even if I’d be relegated to a full-time role on the bench. I have never been great at any sports and was more of a “social” player — more apt to focus on having fun and playing with friends versus wins and losses.
Yosef and I spent some time driving to conditioning practices over the fleeting days of summer break before he finally asked for my perspective on how for him to make his choice.
I wrestled with how to advise him, understanding my wife and I represented two divergent paths:
- Play what you’d be decent at (cross country), or,
- Play where you’d have more fun (football)
The crushing responsibility of raising a teenager into a capable, independent person weighed on me. My response could make this choice obvious or leave him to choose for himself.
“You know, the choice is yours – not mine,” I said. “I’ll support you either way and so will your mom. If I were faced with the same decisions, I’d figure out where I’d be happiest.”
As Yosef nodded his head and gazed out of the passenger window, I knew that we’d be spending the fall season on the gridiron. I have regretted giving that advice ever since.
I do not regret allowing Yosef to make the choice himself. He’s old enough to control his social calendar.
I do not feel regret knowing that my son would spend the football season buried deep on the team’s depth chart – probably never to see the field after pregame warmups.
I do not regret not trying to more directly steer him to cross country. There is always next year.
I do regret, though, punting on the opportunity to teach Yosef about making choices in life – those that have consequences beyond the equipment needed for participation.
Telling a teenager to base a decision solely on happiness might be fine for minor things — like football and cross country — and terrible for life. The truth is, very few of the decisions Yosef will make should begin with the evaluation of his assumed, resulting joy and happiness.
Happiness not always an option
Most adult choices involve boring stuff like needs and utility. Often, I make choices based on whether the means are truly worth the end. My decisions are pragmatic, logical and done after serious opining of potential consequences.
While I’m content with Yosef sitting on the sideline this football season, I am not OK with him taking such an approach to college admissions, his studies or his future career pursuits. Will Yosef, though, understand the difference?
Have I traded the short-term path of least resistance by signing my son up for a treacherous, long-term climb?
That day, I think, I was indoctrinated into the world of parenting a teen – the time in life where I’m in the passenger seat of the decision-making minivan. I would prefer to be at the wheel, controlling the route to the destination. Or, at minimum, I’d like to have one hand on the wheel so that it is impossible for Yosef to ignore my influence during the trip.
I thought about that analogy as I waited for Yosef to immerge from the locker room, in the pouring rain, after his team’s first game (an ugly 13-0 loss that was delayed by rain midway through the second half).
He seemed upbeat for having sat on the sidelines all evening.
“Man, Dad, I know I can get in there!” Yosef was quiet, but confident.
“Just keep working, man. Control what you can. Nothing in life is given,” I replied quickly.
I suddenly swelled with pride. Yosef probably will not play this year, but he sure as hell will not quit.
Maybe, after all, Yosef is learning something because of making decisions based on happiness alone. Maybe he’s learning that the perception of what will bring joy is not devoid of hard work and suffering. Maybe he’s actively redefining what his happiness looks like.
And maybe, if football continues this trajectory for the season, next year Yosef will run cross country instead – and still be happy.