The Burden of Choice

choices, parenting, values

I’m 45 years old, and I am both ecstatic and dismayed that I have one more student loan payment left. I received my graduate degree in 1997. It’s been a while. It also took me a while to understand why my life trajectory was different from my friends’. I didn’t quite grasp that my parents, as immigrants, focused on survival and pushing their children into educations that would provide a better life for us. I didn’t quite understand how not owning property or investments places you on a slightly different track in life. So being practical and driven Chinese people, my sisters and I powered through and did what it took to make my parents’ sacrifices worthy.

Being burdened with student loan payments that for many years were larger than my rent checks didn’t allow for me to join my friends on trips abroad or shopping sprees in New York City. I would instead raid my parents’ pantry for noodles and beans and Chinese oyster sauce when I was home. When I was well into my 20’s. Maybe my early 30’s. Maybe last Christmas. But who’s counting?

I am now facing the prospect of sending my own children to college in a few years, and don’t get me started on today’s ridiculous tuition rates. We are fortunate though that my son has an opportunity to earn college credits that will be honored by our state college system’s universities while he’s still in high school. Because we have already established the fact that I am nothing if not practical, I was hell bent on that child earning the maximum number of credits possible through this program, so that he would graduate with both his high school diploma and 60 college credits. I figured this would give him more options, and a real possibility of saving a lot of money. So practical! So Chinese!

It will take a lot of tight scheduling and strategic planning to fit this all in. But we were all in. Because we are practical. And we are Chinese. He realized he would not be able to fit orchestra into his senior year schedule. He was kinda sorta ok with that. He’s been playing a string instrument since he was four years old. (So Chinese!) But he figured he would continue with private lessons, and earning college credits and saving money would be worth that sacrifice. So practical! So Chinese!

And tonight, I had a very Not-Chinese epiphany as I sat through his orchestra banquet. I’m new to this. This is my first kid in high school, and I was the quietest social outcast in my own high school. I had literally no knowledge about sports or orchestra banquets or senior awards or anything remotely socially appropriate (So Chinese!). So I quickly realize I’m one of the few parents there who did not have a senior, and I silently pledge to do a slow roll next year to drop off a casserole.

As I sat through the evening, I listen to how each senior has impacted the orchestra, his/her/their peers, and the orchestra teacher. I listen to their shared memories and inside jokes. I witness a grown man trying not to cry. I witness friends hug each other for photos. And I realize there is real community in this. I realize this is so Not-Chinese.

Chinese: Not interested in social dynamics. Chinese: It’s all about the grades, saving money, earning money. Chinese: So practical. I realize this is a moment that I do not want to pass on a tradition of my heritage to my children.

Because there isn’t a price tag on finding your tribe. I want to leave space for my son to decide to stick with, or leave, the orchestra when the time comes. He may decide it’s time to leave the orchestra and focus on college credits, but I want him to make that decision on his own, and for his own reasons. I do not want to put pressure on him to make a right or wrong decision.

Because carrying the burden of that is a heavier burden than thousands of dollars in loans. For more years than not, I was paralyzed with seeking perfection. I was taught there is a right decision. And there are many wrong decisions. It led to feeling like I was not enough. It led to anxiety over feeling judged. It led to so much energy into creating a false narrative of who I thought I was supposed to be. Which was a most inauthentic self. It is not hard to lose yourself when you do not know who you are.

I want to teach my children early on that there is value in doing things that resonate; that those decisions are the right ones. That if it’s a really, really hard decision, that means you have a wealth of choices. How fortunate that you have two really good, viable choices. How could you go wrong when both are good contenders?

I want my children to know they are not their worst decision. Or their best decision. I want my children to know that doing what resonates means you are choosing something based on your values. And that is who you are.

I want to teach my children early on that best laid plans…well, they’re best left to unfold in the most unexpected ways. I want to teach them that it feels better to embrace these twists and turns in life than to brace against them. Because it’s in the bracing against the natural unfolding of life where suffering arises. Choosing the impractical path can feel scary and uncertain, and yet resilience is only built during the journey through fears and disappointments.

This epiphany isn’t necessarily about the orchestra, or if they are his tribe. It’s not about how many college credits he can earn in high school. It’s really about holding a safe space for my children to make decisions that honor who they are and what they value. I’m not sure this is practical, and yet we are Chinese. I have no idea what this means, and I have no idea how much money my children will need to borrow. I do however love a good sale (so practical to stock up and save!), so there will always be extra sundries in my pantry for my tribe.

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Posted in Empowerment, Mindfulness, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Box Full of Darkness

Mary Oliver, The Uses of Sorrow, box of darkness, gratitude, loving kindness, divorce

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
-Mary Oliver, The Uses of Sorrow

Mary Oliver, a poet who once said poetry mustn’t be fancy, recently passed away. When I heard this, I paused and let my heart sink a bit, said a little prayer, and reminded myself I need to follow through with my intentions. One of which is to read more Mary Oliver.

I immediately gravitated back to my Mary Oliver favorites. Summer Day. Wild Geese. The Journey. And I remembered The Uses of Sorrow. And I remembered how just this past weekend, I opened a box full of darkness, and inside I found a gift. Like you, I have many boxes of darkness that have been given to me, many unsolicited, through my life. Most of these boxes no longer hurt, but I cannot say all of them are regarded as true gifts.

Not a gift: My house. I always hated my house. My ex-husband liked it, and relationships are about compromise, so we said yes to the house. Oh my God I hated this house. The dark wood siding on the outside. The gazillion trees that littered their sticks and leaves when they no longer had use for them. The large backyard that slopes down to a creek and wooded space, but made yard work more difficult than it has to be. The random wall the previous owners put in to seal off the furnace (why?!). The unfinished crown molding. The old, drafty windows. The ridiculously small kitchen. The unusable coat closet. The creaky floorboards and cheap carpet. I hated everything about it. It took years and more money than is reasonable to update the house, and it’s still a work in progress. It’s slowly turning into a house I like.

There was a time I also hated everything about my ex-husband. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I was definitely angry at him, disliked him immensely, and really felt quite strongly about both. It took years to accept him for who he is and not be bothered by his decisions anymore. It’s still a work in progress. The hurt and anger are no longer there, but there are eyerolls when it comes to how my children are affected by his decisions.

This past weekend we had a bona fide snow day. Over 12 inches of snow. I knew what had to be done, and I rose to the occasion. I made ebelskivers, crepes, four loaves of bread, cookies, cake, pizza dough, soup. And a wreath. I know, a couple things are not quite like the others, but the general category was “Carbs to Slip You Into a Coma” for $800 please. When it snows, I reliably do two things: run and bake. These fill my soul.

So I’m mixing and kneading and rolling and baking in my kitchen. Looking out the window. Watching my kids with the neighborhood kids run through the backyard, sled down the hill, make igloos, throw snowballs. Hearing them scream and laugh and shriek.

I put the flour down and washed and dried my hands. I opened a box of darkness and found the loveliest gift. I found a house with a sturdy roof at the end of a cul de sac surrounded by kind and thoughtful neighbors. I found a home full of handprints and crumbs and cat hair that we could not have afforded with my social work salary and without my ex-husband’s military loan that didn’t require a down payment. I found a huge backyard perfect for sledding and snowball fights. I found a creek behind our house that is perfect for exploration and daydreaming. I found two little people who are actually mostly my size, who have forced me to be a better person.

And suddenly, a box that I had not paid much attention to in 12 years provided profound gratitude and deep lovingkindness. My ex-husband will continue to be who he wants to be. And there was a time we hurt each other on purpose, triggered each other unconsciously, misunderstood each other most of the time. And, not in spite of, but AND, he gave me the life I never knew I wanted.

Thank you, Ex-Husband for all of your gifts that have made me who I am today and given me this world of amazement. Thank you, Mary Oliver, for your not-fancy poetry that helps me better understand my one wild and precious life.

Posted in Mindfulness, Relationships | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

When Rice is Love

rice cooker, National rice cooker, love, Chinese, Asian

Twenty four years ago, my parents gave me an old 3-cup rice cooker, National brand. It was rusty on the outside, but it did the job. They loaded me up with used furniture, an Ikea piece or two, mismatched kitchenware, and a new rug when I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school.

When I started my own family, my father couldn’t believe I still had that little rice cooker. He gave me a new one, a bigger one, to feed more people. He told me to toss the old, small one. He said it looked embarrassing, it was old and rusty, and had one button. I took the new one, packed the old one in that new box, and put it downstairs. I loved that little rice cooker. Plus, I’m a hoarder.

Today I became overwhelmed with panic. I lifted the lid, to find rice grains soaking in warm water. My rice cooker had broken. Died. Gone. What in the hell does a Chinese woman do without a rice cooker? Where is my rice?? I have never been able to make rice on the stove top. The outer edges get burned and the middle stays uncooked. There’s a reason billions of Asians use rice cookers–they work reliably. So reliably, that I literally did not know what to do for dinner.

Fortunately, my children laughing at me interrupted my frantic search on Amazon (but of course) for rice cookers that could be delivered tomorrow. It was then that I remembered my trusty old rice cooker. I searched downstairs for it, and sure enough, it was there waiting for me after all this time. It was so comforting to see it again. It felt like my parents were in my kitchen.

My mother died a year ago, and I think of her at strange, unexpected times. Sometimes it makes me really sad. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Sometimes it makes me wish I knew her better. My sisters were much closer to her than I ever was. My relationship with her waxed and waned through the years. She was very old-school Asian. I am not. My parents weren’t touchy-feely parents. I’m a feely sort of person.

My parents had one job to do, and they were going to damn well do it, and do it well. They sacrificed everything for us to have better futures. They worked their asses off so that we could go to school and well, go to more school. They weren’t interested in who our friends were, or what our interests were, or what the new clothing trend was. They weren’t interested in why my heart was broken, or who made me laugh, or what made me anxious. They weren’t interested in what my dreams were, and why.

They just needed to get us through college and graduate school so that we could earn more money than they had. They took that job seriously. My mother did not take me seriously. She liked to tell me she disagreed with my thoughts and dreams and fears. She thought she was helping me, by telling me how she was right and I was wrong. She thought she’d save me from myself. So I stopped sharing myself with her. And she never really asked. So when she died, I still didn’t know as much about her as I’d had liked.

Like the rusty, trusty, simple rice cooker that stays with me, her impact on shaping who I am stays with me. It took me a really long time to learn it’s better to be kind than right. My relationship with my mother would have been different had I known that she just needed to be right. I don’t know if I would have been able to not personalize it, or if I would have been able to accept her when I was younger. I would have likely continued to be irritated with her. I do know she guides me to be the parent I am with my children.

I try to be mindful to have a different relationship with my kids. I used to think that Western/American culture tends to have parents who want to be friends with their children. Asian cultures tend to have a hierarchy in parenting, and feel this friendship prevents good boundaries and discipline. I’ve come to realize that I can be the Boss of Them, and get to know their dreams, their fears, their opinions. I’ve come to realize I love watching their faces when they’re doing something they love. I love having family inside jokes. I love when they come and ask me for advice. I love when they come to confide something in me. I love that I am a safe place for their hearts to rest, and their souls to blossom. I love getting to know them in a way my mother never experienced with me, in a way I never experienced with her.

Like with many things, it’s bittersweet. To have my rusty, trusty rice cooker, and my rusty, trusty memories of my mother by my side, reminding me to be the kind of mother I want to be. The kind of mother who feeds her childrens’ bellies with warm, soft rice, and feeds their souls with sacred memories of facing fears and dreams together. For the record, I’ve banned the children from ever touching the rice cooker. I will absolutely lose all coping skills and freak the fuck out if it ever dies on me.

 

Posted in Mindfulness, Parenting | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Active Shooter Lockdown at my Children’s Schools: My Response

active shooter, lockdown, gun control, school shooting

“Please talk with your children about what happened and reassure them that there are strategies in place both at home and school to ensure safety.” — Part of the note from the school principal after an active shooter lockdown. (Note: It turned out to be a false report and everyone is safe)

Nope, I can’t do that. I don’t lie to my kids. I am well aware the note from the school’s administrators is well-meaning, and I am well aware they are truly doing all they can to keep our kids safe. And with all due respect to the principal, it is utter bullshit. I’m not going to lie and tell my kids that there are strategies in place to ensure their safety.

Not when firearms are so readily available in this country. Not when people have poor coping skills and lash out when they feel invalidated, frustrated, angry, lonely. Not when our country’s leaders encourage people to view fellow neighbors as Others. Not when these same leaders actively invalidate others’ humanity.

I get it. The school has active shooter protocols and drills. The police department has the same. These don’t ensure my children’s safety though. They are plans to react to an active shooter. A response plan isn’t ensuring safety. It’s a hopeful strategy that casualties will be minimized. Ensuring safety and minimizing casualties are two completely different things.

That’s what I’m going to tell my kids. I’m going to tell them that a better plan to ensure their safety is to vote for leaders who support gun control. I am going to tell them we must hold our policymakers accountable. Let me be clear. No one is considering changing any constitutional amendment. You want your guns? You’ve got your guns. What we don’t have is a system in place that prevents people who shouldn’t have guns, get guns. If you really believe that any slippery slope will lead to taking your guns away, let’s talk. But only if you come to the table with facts and sources.

I’m going to tell my kids that a better plan to ensure their safety is to vote for leaders who actively work to validate all humans. That includes equal rights for every human. That includes examining policies that have intended or unintended consequences that marginalize or penalize certain populations. This is not pie, folks. Giving people rights doesn’t mean taking any away from you. Preventing people from their rights pisses them off and creates an Other Group. We’re less likely to hurt someone if we can connect with someone, if we can recognize something familiar in them.

I’m going to tell my kids that a better plan to ensure their safety is to encourage others to learn better coping mechanisms. To talk to people about how to deal with frustration, how to cope with anger, how to deal with loneliness. To talk to people about perspective and gratitudes. To talk to people so they know they matter. Shooting people, mailing bombs, resorting to violence are the crudest, most immaturely developed coping skills ever. We need to teach people how to deal with hard things and yucky feelings without resorting to lashing out in violence.

I’m going to tell my kids that active shooter drills and lockdown plans don’t solve any problem, that they only make people feel safe but the problem still exists. The problem is that we deserve better than to live with the current reality that our kids might get shot in school one day. I am not going to tell my kids that this is just part of life. This is not acceptable. Making people feel safe doesn’t mean they are safe. We should be outraged by our children’s fears. We should not accept that this current reality is our future reality.

What is acceptable is teaching my kids how to be activists. What is acceptable is teaching them how to do their part daily with their interactions with others to show kindness and acceptance, and to help peers cope. What is acceptable is teaching them how to challenge racism, misogyny, hateful speech. What is acceptable is giving them agency to do so. What is acceptable is to challenge myths and lies with facts. I know, you’re thinking this is so off-topic from school shooters. But every voice counts, and we must change the narrative and expectations of how we deal with guns and people and problems and feelings. It’s not OK to hurt people, with words or bullets. Is it touchy feely? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

It’s macro and micro. We must change laws and policies. We must change how we interact with each other. We must change how we define a problem and how we choose to solve it. The problem is that our children are literally not safe in schools. Making it harder for a shooter to enter the building and classrooms is a band-aid, it is not the solution. If you think that it is the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Posted in Empowerment | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Getting Arrested Changed My Life

#cancelkavanaugh, #resist, #novemberiscoming

My daughter is deeply disappointed in me. She does not think it’s fitting to have any criminal record. She understands why I’ve recently turned to a scofflaw life, but she does not approve. It has taken almost 45 years to discover my hidden talent and passion for being arrested. I cannot believe I’ve lived this long with only a traffic ticket, or two (for the record, there were two), up until now.

Non-violent protest and civil disobedience have a long history. I’ve been active in non-violent protest for a couple years, and I realize it was not soon enough. I use these activities to channel my outrage over policies and actions that hurt our country, damage our world, dehumanize people. I protest and write postcards and man phone banks because I’m trying in my small way to impact the country and world my children live in. I register voters and display signs and talk to my kids about current issues and history.

And yet I felt so helpless. A week ago, I went to a protest in Washington, D.C. with a friend. We joked we would get arrested. We planned on marching and chanting for a few hours, and then we would head home for dinner plans. The day unfolded in unexpected ways, but each moment presented with options. We each chose options that felt right to each of us. We were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of women and men and allies who were mindful to hold a safe place for mindful reflection and decision-making. There was no judgment, no pressure, no expectations.

There were many different ways to support the non-violent protest. I chose to peacefully protest and risk arrest if necessary. Getting arrested was not a goal. But I decided I would if it came down to it. My friend chose to not risk getting arrested. I am so thankful for her, her patience, her support. She, like every one of the hundreds of supporters, was vital. She stood firm on the steps of the Capitol and shouted her passions to the world. I am so proud of her.

The day was life changing for me, and I learned many things. One of which is that her friendship is a true friendship. Here are the practical tips in case you can’t be friends with her too: bring extra cash for others who may not have the money to post. Let your friends know you will not be able to communicate with them for many, many hours. Eat beforehand like it’s your last supper–you have no idea how long you’ll be held. If you need medications, bring only what you need, and ensure it’s properly documented that it’s prescribed for you. There is no Suggestion Box or Customer Service Survey for improving efficiencies and productivity in jail.

Hundreds of us were held for over seven hours. In those 420 minutes, we learned about each other. We learned where each of us lived, what our passions were, what our outrage was about, what our families looked like. We cheered each other on every time someone’s name was called for processing or to be released, like a continual kindergarten graduation ceremony. We stared into the eyes of courage and passion and kindness.

We accepted and supported each other without hesitation, even before trading first names. Being handcuffed and seated does not allow for much mingling. Yet we managed to pass money to each other to ensure that everyone had enough money to post, we scratched each other’s noses and shoulders, we pushed glasses up, swiped hair out of each other’s eyes, and picked up dropped items, all while handcuffed. Being called “prisoners,” being barked at, not knowing what time it was, not knowing what was next, did not dampen our collective support and love and kindness. It amplified the best of humanity.

As I learned more about each beautiful, brave, kind person, I realized this is the moment of all moments. I try to act like the person I want to be. Of all moments to do so, more than any other moment, this was now. I realized I must be THIS woman, for the women who cannot. I have the privilege of my race, life situation, and finances to engage in civil disobedience, so I must do so for all of us. For the people who can’t get arrested because they’re racially profiled daily, for the people who can’t get off work to protest, for the people who don’t have the money to post the fine, for the people who don’t have the family/social support to stand publicly, for the people who don’t have the agency, means, safety to take a stand. Seeing my privilege last week was eye opening, and makes me more determined to double down on this fight.

People tell me I am brave. At first I said “No, I’m just pissed off.” But I realize I am brave. I am brave because I am scared, and I refuse to bow down to fear. That’s it, that’s all brave is. Brave is merely forward momentum as your inner voice whispers, as your heart pounds violently, as you wonder what you’re made of. You can be brave and scared at the same time. I am scared of a lot of things.

I will tell you what I really fear. I fear raising my children in a world where sexual assault is normalized because that means we continue to dehumanize and invalidate women as equals. I fear raising my children in a world where lying, deflecting, and blaming are the baselines that define success. I fear raising my children in a world where people excuse and accept and engage in inappropriate behavior to further their end goals. I fear raising my children in a world where hypocrisy is a norm instead of challenged. I fear raising my children in a world where we dehumanize others, where we insulate with those similar to us, where it’s better to win than it is to help.

I refuse to live in a world where we lash out in punitive actions, belittle and mock others, gaslight and lie for any reason. I refuse to live in a world where our self-serving interests come first. I refuse to live in a world that does not believe we all rise together. I refuse to live in a world where people do not critically think, where people are not curious, where people think beliefs are facts.

And so these fears and refusals fuel my resistance, my protest, my courage. I have the agency and means to do what I can to make this world a place my children deserve. I have the obligation to take a stand for the people who cannot. My daughter understands this, and I know one day she will be as proud as I am about my arrest. I hope that one day I get the calls to bail both of my children out of jail for their civil disobedience. Those calls will surely become my proudest moments.

Posted in Empowerment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Where are you from?

racism, Chinese, Crazy Rich Asians, #crazyrichasians

“North Jersey, right outside of NYC,” I’d always reply. I know what people mean when they ask me. Inevitably, they always follow up with “No, I mean where are you REALLY from?” At which point I’d say, “Oh, right. I was born in Texas, but I grew up outside of NYC, and that’s really where I feel like I’m from.” The questioner would usually be very irritated with me at this point, and he/she would ask, “I MEANT, where are your parents from?”

And I MEANT to make you feel uncomfortable and I MEANT to make it difficult for you. Because no one ever asks a Caucasian where they’re REALLY from. No one asks a Caucasian WHAT you are. No one ever guesses what European country a Caucasian might have ethnic ties to. But me? I’m like a party game. My entire life, people ask, “What are you?”, “Where are you really from?”–like I don’t belong here, like I don’t have a legitimate right to be a human from this country. People throw out different Asian countries in the hopes of getting it right, like there was a prize or fortune cookie if they nailed it. My entire life, people have asked me “to say something in Chinese” like I’m their circus animal who will perform tricks upon request. And when I refuse to play along, they get irritated. I’m labeled hostile, difficult, too serious.

I’m labeled a lot of things. As a model minority in this country, I’m told I should be grateful that stereotypical assumptions about me are largely positive. That I’m smart, that I’m good at math and science. That I can play the piano. That I’m quiet and agreeable and subservient. That I’m hypersexual. That I’m hard working and obedient and won’t cause trouble.

When I’m asked WHAT I am, where I’m REALLY from; when I’m automatically met with a set of neatly packaged assumptions and expectations before I open my mouth, I am automatically denied my humanity. I am not seen as a whole and valid human being deserving and worthy of occupying the same space and rights as others.

So a funny thing happened when I saw the promotion and marketing around Crazy Rich Asians. I was fascinated by all the promotion–the interviews, the fashion walking down the green carpet, the social media hype. When I finally went to see the movie, I found myself literally smiling through the entire thing.

Because along with the positive stereotypes, I was also always told that “I look exotic,” and it was apparently supposed to be a compliment instead of an adjective for birds. But looking “exotic” also meant my flat face and wide cheekbones and “single eyelids” were different, not pretty. No one was trying to look like me. No one graced red carpets or catwalks or magazine covers like me. No one played major roles on the small or big screen that looked like me unless he/she was a token doctor, nerd, restaurant owner, or hooker. Caricatures.

Yet these actors and actresses in Crazy Rich Asians–they were strutting down the green carpet unapologetically in their haute couture, their sparkly jewels, their wide cheekbones, their single eyelids. In the movie, Chinese pop music is PART of the soundtrack, not just a token song playing in the background of a karaoke bar. The movie set and costumes and location were glamorous and it was not a historical martial arts or gangster movie that caters to stereotypes. This was unapologetic ownership of who they are, who I am. Of their cheekbones and eyelids. Of their names that don’t fall easily off the tongue, of their family dynamics of saving face. These people who look like me–they were not quirky supporting roles–they WERE the story.

I had no idea how powerful racial representation really is. I had no idea how powerful the lack of racial representation is. Until I saw people who look like me up there as real, nuanced human beings. In real, nuanced life situations.

This movie was about relationships and love and family and connections. It was about BEING Chinese, and being HUMAN. It reminds us we are more the same than we are different. So why does it bother me when people think I’m hostile or too serious when I grumble about racial bias and stereotypes, yet at the same time, why am I celebrating our differences in this movie? Why does it sound like I’m saying this movie is a big deal, yet I also say this movie is relatable to all? Because the significance lies in its insignificance.

Because when the larger culture dehumanizes me, I will not be obedient and quiet. The very proof of my existence, my birth certificate, stripped me of my humanity literally the second I was born. Under race, my parents are “yellow.” I’d like to note none of us were jaundiced. I was denied my personhood when the ruling institutions told me my value is a color.

So when people ask me where I’m from, the answer is I am from a country that still sees color no matter how color blind people purport to be. I am from a world that gets defensive about universal racial biases. I am from a world that is finally proudly displaying and celebrating flat faces and wide cheekbones and single eyelids.

Posted in Empowerment, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

#winning at What Cost?

abusive sports culture, toxic sports culture, abusive culture, abuse, intimidation, fear

I’ve learned to listen to my gut. So when I first started hearing students and teachers describe a certain coach with certain words, it struck me as interesting, and I tucked it away. Fast forward to a year later, and I’m a little more than interested now. A child I know is playing under this coach now, and I’m watching carefully.

There has been little to no communication about the try-out process, practice schedule, or expectations. The students are not told if or when players may be cut, nor when students are told if they made the team. The players are not told when practice is, until literally the day before. It could be 6:30am, or 4pm. Players are not told when practice ends. Parents are notified practice is over when they hear from their child. Players were told they needed 4 different color shirts the night before scrimmages. This is disrespectful and unkind to parents and families. Someone needs to pick up that child or arrange a carpool if they do not live close enough to the school. Someone needs to go out and buy the shirts with little notice.

The players are screamed at if they are caught looking over at the football team on another field. The players are told their skills are “shit.” The players fear angering their coach. They fear getting cut. They fear being dropped down to JV. The players also have funny stories of the coach–the things he says sometimes are funny and appropriate. Parents in the community have some warm stories about the coach in other settings.

So I start to ask around a bit more. I want to know more about this person with a long history of coaching in the community. I ask others about their experiences as parents with their children playing under him. I ask others about their experiences as parents in the school. I ask others about their experiences as parents with children who play other sports or at other schools.

And some people tell me: “Oh, he’s just old school.”
“Oh he just hates parents, there are too many helicopter parents.”
“He’s a winning coach.”
“I hate to tell you this, but you can’t protect your kid anymore. It’s a common sports culture where coaches yell at players to not be pansies.”
“Oh, they’re in high school, they hear curse words all the time.”

Let me break this down. Cursing in high school? Sure, kids are exposed to cursing as early as elementary school–through music, movies, friends, family. But it is never appropriate for a teacher/coach to curse at teenage students. There is a boundary and hierarchy of mutual respect that dictates one should not be cursing in this dynamic. Like at church–cursing, no. At the mall with friends, fuck yeah.

As for protecting kids, I’m not one who has ever saved the day for my kids. If they have an issue with their teacher or grades, they are to use their words appropriately to rectify the problem while I sit at home cursing at the cats. So no, my concern does not originate from a purported over-parenting style.

As for being old school, or a winning coach, or a culture of sports–this excuse is tone deaf in our current climate and is an excuse used to enable. Simply because this is how things used to be does not make it appropriate nor effective nor right. This argument is akin to accepting sexual harassment or assaults as part and parcel of working in the movie industry. Or accepting sexual harassment in any workplace. Just because it was, doesn’t mean it’s ok, or that it has to continue to be this way. Right now, the University of Maryland is struggling with the death of a player because of a purported toxic culture. It’s really easy for things to go badly quickly.

Here is the thing that is not being recognized. Any one or two of the specific behaviors are excusable or acceptable or understandable. But one must look at the entirety of the situation. This dynamic and culture the coach has created through the years is an abusive dynamic.

In abusive relationships, there is control, unpredictability, shame, humiliation, fear, intimidation. Power is created and maintained through these currencies. Control and unpredictability over practice schedule, unpredictability over being cut or demoted–these breed fears and obedience. Being shamed and humiliated in front of your peers, inconsistent praise and uneven moods–these breed fears and obedience.

You wouldn’t accept this if your child was in an intimate relationship with these dynamics. Why would you accept this dynamic from an adult who has power in your child’s life? Stop enabling the abuser.

Abusers are also not monsters. It’s not mutually exclusive to be a good father or nice friend, and be abusive. But we all too often want to paint someone as all good or all bad to make it easier for us to reconcile. Just because he is a winning coach and is kind to certain people does not mean he cannot possibly create and maintain a toxic, abusive dynamic and culture.

Our teenage students also did not sign up for military basic training. This kind of “culture” has no place on any sports field. It is entirely possible to be a strong leader and manager who is supportive and kind, and be a winning coach. It takes more work to be supportive and encouraging and motivating. It is entirely possible to motivate athletes to achieve great goals and work hard without being controlling and demeaning.

So I talk to my children about management styles, and how it might be more effective if a person of power and authority utilized other strategies. I talk to my children about kindness and respect and support. I talk to my children about how someone can want something so badly (to play this sport) he/she will accept certain conditions. I talk to my children to recognize inappropriate behaviors and dynamics.

There’s a fear in the community of being labeled “that parent.” There’s fear that the player might get cut or otherwise punished for complaining. These fears are based in reality when stories are shared about past parents and players who dared to air their concerns. These are hard decisions to make, deciding how much is too much, and how much you might tolerate. All children deserve to be in healthy, nurturing, supportive relationships. We all deserve this. That’s the kind of #winning I encourage.

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