That's a nervous scene for a parent. Whether it's your son's first at bat or the thousandth, we never quit whispering - please find that ball.
He did, thankfully. He accelerated the bat through the ball like we'd been working on. A couple of hops later and the ball was rolling in the left field grass and Elliott was standing on first base.
I'm a sports nut. It's easy for me to get caught up in the hit and the catch, the throw and the run. At least that's my excuse for missing a key moment in the play above, and why I'm grateful I sit next to my wife Katie at these games. Once Elliott was safely on first base I'd turned my attention back to the field. You never know what might happen when these young kids start flinging that ball around and I didn't want to miss anything. But thanks to a well-timed elbow, Katie brought my attention back to the boy on first base. My boy.
"Your son's looking for your approval," she said.
Sure enough, when I looked back over at him he was discussing his hit with his coach, but his helmet was cocked sideways and his eyes were looking for me. For seventeen guys on the field the play was over when the ball returned to the pitchers glove. For one of them, though, it wasn't over until he knew I approved of his play.
"Great hit, Elliott," I yelled.
That's all it took. With a simple acknowledgement, his attention caught up with the other seventeen, and I was again just another fan in the stands. This sounds like a sports story, I know. But it's not. It's just this dad's reminder of how badly our children long for our approval. Handled right, that's a wonderful thing. But handling it right is sometimes easier said than done.
In the last chapter, I addressed discipline. I didn't include forgiveness as one of the keys to it, but looking back, maybe I should have. As a father, I know when I punish our boys for behaviors I disapprove of, I run the risk they'll believe I disapprove of them. That risk is magnified by the reality that our boys are in constant pursuit of my approval. For children, forgiveness becomes the great clarifier, it puts a loving wedge between a child and a child's mistakes.
I can't count the number of times I've disciplined our boys only to have them respond "you don't love me anymore." For smaller offenses and softer punishments, they might take it easy on me and offer up the tamer "you don't like me anymore." What a relief. Now, before you think our boys have lucked into a fool for a father, I'll assure you, I'm aware much of the motivation for these carefully chosen responses is to unload the guilt they feel over their mistakes onto me. I'm also wise enough to know, though, there's something to those responses. They only invoke the "love" card because they know it's a reasonable thing to question - especially young children - if you don't love the things I'm doing, does that mean you don't love me?
I'd be a fool if I considered changing the way I discipline my kids out of fear I might leave them feeling like I don't love them anymore. I'd be a bigger fool, however, if I didn't take steps to address that possibility in my discipline.
My answer to that is forgiveness. I'm intentional about making sure our boys know the punishments I hand out are tied to the things they do - not to who they are. (And dads, just because you understand the difference, don't presume for a second that a 7 year old does.) So frequently - enough that I know the message is becoming a more understood part of their discipline - I tell our boys after the punishment is all said and done that I love them, and I realize their mistake was just that, a mistake. I then go on to tell them they've already proven they're capable of better choices than their most recent poor one, which is why I can't allow them or me to accept less. After all, would there be a better way to be unloving of our children than allowing them to believe their mistakes tell their story best?
It's important to note there is no formal ceremony in my forgiveness. No boys lined up against a wall while I march by them and tap them on the head and pronounce them officially forgiven. That's because our children don't need to hear "you're forgiven," they need to feel it.
This process goes beyond my relationship with our boys. It paves the way for them to unleash a key to life that many adults, myself included, have already learned. When we make mistakes, the greatest stress that comes from those missteps are the burdens we perceive they've situated on others. Often, rightfully so. But oh the relief, the feeling like life has in some ways started anew, when others assure us those burdens no longer exist - if they ever did - through their forgiveness.
In the next part of this chapter, I will talk about ways we can teach our children to actively pursue that feeling of forgiveness.