Sunday, September 28, 2014

One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet, sometimes that’s not the whole story. Whenever I see a photo of a family our size (four kids) smiling back from a picturesque locale, I imagine the happy story it’s telling is more than likely a work of fiction. But that’s okay; I like fiction.
A picture I took of our four kids smiling from the shores of Green Lakes State Park recently is no exception.
You wouldn’t know from looking that it was our fourth attempt on this walk to get a group photo – the three before ending in tears, temper tantrums or fake toot noises. Truth be told, that single photo may have been the only moment during our entire visit that all four of the kids were smiling at the same time. And the real story behind it would likely take more than a 1000 words to tell. We'll soon see.
We went to Green Lakes State Park on a recent fall Saturday because I needed to get out of the frigging house, and not while going to work, the store, dance class, or another damn soccer game. I needed to go someplace just for the pure purpose of leisure – R&R as they call it in the Army (or so I’ve been told).
Those who know our family well know that the past few months have been tough, with my wife out of town often attending to family health matters. She’s spent many nights sleeping – and not sleeping – at hospitals with her family, and I’ve spent many days at home with our four lovely children. I have the far easier part of the equation, and I know it.
Still, when she’s out of town I often have to call in the cavalry just to get our kids to the various events and practices that dominate our lives, all while meeting my various work responsibilities. It can be draining.
Once in a while, we all need to take a break from the deadlines and duties of our children’s overscheduled lives, and just do something fun -- even when that means taking all four kids on an outing. Think of “fun” as a relative term here.
I’m an old pro now at taking all four kids places by myself, and even successfully took them all to the State Fair alone a few weeks ago. I haven’t written about that trip, though, because we pretty much spent the entire six hours going from one dirty bathroom to the next. Apparently, filling their bellies with chocolate milk 20 minutes after arriving wasn’t the smartest move. It did, however, give me an idea for a portable potty seat/stroller that I think would sell to parents of Kindergartners.
Anyway, as this more recent fall Saturday afternoon arrived, and soccer ended mercifully for another 24 hours, I decided we should go on an unstructured, impromptu trip to the local state park. Just me and the four kids. I figured we’d hang out together, play on the swings, and take a walk around the 1.8 mile lake loop trail. No real plan, no pressure.
When I say Green Lakes is close to our house, it may be understatement. The entrance lies literally less than a mile from our door, and the park border itself is even closer – it’s where the local deer population goes to rest in their recliners after eating my entire tomato crop.
As for our family, we often visit the park in the spring and fall, though rarely in the summer because they charge to get in between Memorial Day and Labor Day. We have four kids and no spare money, so we go when it’s free.
We arrived this unusually warm fall day to find the parking lot packed with cars that had delivered others families looking for similar free respite from their busy lives within the natural settings of the park.
With three of my four children under the age of ten, our first stop was the playground – a plastic and metal jungle that is likely the least natural thing around. I sat on a nearby picnic bench. The one child over ten proceeded to sit near my eardrum so she could nag me incessantly about how she only wanted to come here for the hiking part of the visit.
“How much longer are you going to let them play?” she asked somewhere around ten times in a span of three minutes.
After I ignored her nine of the times, she joined them on the fancy monkey bars, and they played even longer than I had told her the first time she asked.
Once they were good and exhausted, I pried them each off the playing equipment and prepared them for the nature walk portion of our visit – a preparation that included a bathroom break, of course.
Finally on our way, the walk took an early negative turn. This happened when the oldest child shared with her siblings exactly how deep the lakes are – created by glacial waterfall plunge pools – and how just a few feet into the water, the bottom falls away to over a hundred feet deep. My six-year-old, who is the resident phobia queen, proceeded to shriek and cry, refusing to walk on the side of the path closest to the water’s edge.
“It’s just an irrational fear,” the older daughter chided, as she tried unsuccessfully to firmly console her younger sister.
Actually it wasn’t. It kind of freaks me out when I think about it, too. It’s like we’re standing on a cliff, but it’s filled with water. I was going to reassure her by saying you can drown just as easily in a few feet of water, but thought better of it.
Our almost two-mile walk along the lake continued, with shrieks and screams to spare. Occasionally, the siting of a fish in the water or a bird in a tree became the focus. And that was good.
The rest of the time, the eldest was convincing her sister that there was nothing to fear by walking as close to the water’s edge as possible, each attempt only causing more trouble.  Finally, I had to stop her from trying to help the situation, because she was only making it worse.
Toot noises.
Even though tension was high, with one child practically in tears for fear of falling into the incomprehensibly deep lake and another not talking to us because I'd instructed her to “stop interacting” with her younger sister, I thought it might be nice to get a least one happy photo. Yep. Good luck.
Our first photo stop along the shore of the lake was at a nice, little spot where a shallow section made approaching the water possible for all the kids. I got a good shot of them all facing the other way, but the moment ended with the boy making fart noises and everyone alternatively laughing and screaming at him.
Broken fern, bad lighting.
The second attempt failed because the youngest daughter had found a fern branch she loved, and she wanted it to be in the picture with us. This ended when the older sister ripped the plant from her hands, breaking its stalk in half. Again, tears. 

The light wasn’t right either, so we moved on.
The third attempt also involved ferns, but new ones.

Too big for selfie,
or fern gully.
This time we stopped on a bridge, and I tried to take a selfie of us all. The phone/camera was too close to get everyone in the shot. Luckily, a nice older couple was passing by and offered to take the photo. After I handed the phone/camera over to them, my eldest noticed the new ferns in her sisters hands and grabbed them gently from her, and went to place them on the bridge railing. As the older couple watched us, a wind gust blew the ferns off the bridge and into the creek below. You guessed it: tears.
The fern-loving younger one then tried to climb down into the creek to retrieve her beloved plants. The older couple stood there looking at us with my phone/camera poised and ready.
“Sorry,” I said to them, and meant it. “You’re free to go.”
They smiled awkwardly, nodded knowingly, and then they left.
For the fourth attempt at a family photo a bit farther along the path I decided to just take a shot of the kids, like the first two attempts, and not subject any strangers to our drama. The lighting was okay, the backdrop awesome, and for one brief moment they all smiled.
Click. (Or whatever sound the phone/camera makes).

Well, almost.

I would have done another take, but the boy started shaking his butt, while yelling, “I’m shaking my butt!” for all the park inhabitants to hear.
So, that one photo would have to be good enough. And, I swear, it’s a true representation of our awesome trip to Green Lakes State Park.

There you have it. I guess this picture is worth closer to 1,550 words.
On a related note, there’s been a lot written elsewhere about this phenomena of happy photos that don’t tell the real story. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with it. If you think about it, that’s kind of how the mind works, too.
The actual moments of our lives are often wrought with angst, frustration and tension, but the memories can become good ones with time.
Remember that challenging trip the family took to the amusement park, with the insufferable heat, the long lines and the expensive food. It can end up being the best time ever. 

That happy photo is just the first step in the cleansing process. 

So, now it’s up to you, my mind; cleanse away.

Harry and the Hendersons inspired this last one.

Like the article? Know others who may enjoy reading it? Please share it using the buttons below or to the left. Thank you.

Monday, September 8, 2014

6 Tips to Help Parents Enjoy Soccer Again

It's the time of year when parents spend many weekend mornings searching the house for that missing shin guard, scouring local sports stores for another pair of soccer socks and loading up lawn chairs for a season on the sidelines watching our young ones chase soccer balls around.

Let's admit it: Soccer can be time-consuming, anxiety-inducing and even costly -- for kids, parents and coaches alike. With the right attitude, it can also be lots of fun. As a father of four, a long-time soccer fan and a youth soccer coach, here are a few tips that can improve your enjoyment of the so-called beautiful game.

1. This Isn't the Soccer of Our Youth

When I played youth soccer decades ago, our practices went something like this: The coach would tell us how to kick the ball, then we'd line up and one by one, with all the other kids watching, run up to a stationary ball and try to kick it. No matter how we fared, we'd then go to the end of the line and anxiously await another chance at glory. We'd be lucky to touch the ball three times during one of those "skill drills."

For games, the coaches would put 11 of us on the field per side -- even in second grade -- and then holler from the sidelines as a 20-child mass of flailing legs would bunch around the ball, moving slowly across the field, occasionally crossing a goal line to "score." It looked more like a rugby scrum than soccer.

Nowadays, most youth coaches are encouraged to avoid the line-them-up-and-take-turns type of drills in favor of what's called small-sided games. They'll give each kid a ball and make them run around a square; or break the team up into smaller groups to focus on a given skill or two; or have them play three-on-three games. This allows each player to make more soccer moves and decisions during practice, giving them more "touches" and actually practicing the skills needed to improve.

For any bystander who remembers the orderly practices of their youth, it can look like a total mess. But it works.

When it comes to games, soccer leagues that follow the age-appropriate curriculum suggested by U.S. Youth Soccer will put smaller teams on the field, again to maximize touches and to keep the pile of kids around the ball at a manageable level. For instance, those aged 6 and under should only have three or four players per team on the field for games. Teams shouldn't get to 11 per side until age thirteen.

2. Recreational Soccer has Recreation in the Name for a Reason.

Up until about third grade, almost all kids play in recreational leagues, where teams are made up of members of the same community or youth soccer organization and play each other. After that age, most clubs are divided into recreational and so-called "travel" teams.

If you and your child like the competitive side of the sport and entertain visions of soccer stardom, travel may be for you. If they make the team and play, they'll get all the competition they need to improve their skills. And you'll get to spend lots of time and money traveling around to games.

But if what they really need is playing time, a recreational league may be a better choice.

Rec soccer leagues and intramural leagues focus on individual skill development, no matter the skill level of the player. Most of these leagues encourage coaches to give kids equal playing time and the opportunity to play different positions, which is critically important, because we don't know at that age who's going to blossom into the perfect striker.

If your kid plays recreational soccer, parents and coaches should treat it as such. Understand going in that your little superstars will be sitting the bench just as often as the kid who has never played the game before. In rec leagues, that's how it should be. Remember, it's supposed to be fun. Thus, the name.

3. Yelling is Futile and Even Embarrassing

I know how frustrating it can be to have some 16-year-old referee blow an offside call, costing your team the coveted victory. I've dealt with the crying kid who happened to be in goal when that fateful shot slipped into the net, in a clear violation of all soccer goodness. It should have been disallowed. But please remember that most referees, coaches and assistant coaches are just volunteers. And they are volunteering so that your kid can play this game.

It's rarely a good idea to yell at a referee. And, it's certainly never a good idea to yell at one of the kids on the other team -- even if they pushed down little Johnnie, without any regard for the rules. Let the coaches and refs handle it.

I remember one overzealous mom who thought it would be funny to yell the wrong instructions to a 9-year-old on the other team -- this, after the kid's coach had tried to give her the right instructions.

"Clear the ball, Suzie, like we practiced," the coach encouraged. The mom from the opposing team retorted, "Kick it toward the goal, Suzie." She thought it was a hoot. We were all embarrassed for her.

If parents must yell things, keep it positive and simple. "Go, INSERT NAME!" will cover most situations.

Coaches, too, should think about what they yell or even say really loudly, as we often must to be heard half-a-field away. Try following the simple rule of bookending. When you want to give an instructional critique that can't wait till halftime or the next practice, surround it with encouragement. "Good effort, Johnnie. Next time, try to get it closer to the sideline. But great hustle."

4. They'll Never Pass Like Barcelona

Nothing is better in soccer than watching a good pass -- that perfect ball from Xavi to Lionel Messi that lands on his foot and ends in a goal. I know we all want our kindergartener's team to spread out and pass the ball, like Barcelona does. Or, even like we did back in high school -- if memory serves us correctly.

The reality is that kindergarteners simply are not going to do that. There's a reason. Younger kids lack the developmental tools needed to "spread out" and see the field. Heck, some adults lack these skills. Kids this age are focused on their own feet -- or on the dandelions growing in the next field. They are playing to learn how to kick the ball, to follow rules and to have fun. Passing comes later.

I always cringe when some well-meaning grandparent yells at a 6-year-old who's streaking down the field with the ball for the first time in his life, "Pass It!"

Again, "Go" will likely suffice.

Think about it. If we all yell "Pass" every time the ball gets near any kid's foot, as many parents are apt to do, we create a bunch of soccer players who treat the soccer ball like a hot potato -- getting rid of it the second it comes their way. That won't serve them well if they decide to stick with the game.

5. Winning at this Level Shouldn't Matter, Because It Really Doesn't

When a team loses, the parents are often heartbroken. The kids? Not so much. Sure, they want to win. But most bounce back pretty quickly from even a lopsided loss.

I was an assistant coach with a team a few years back that went undefeated. It was a rec-level league for third grade girls -- U8, as U.S. Soccer calls it. Our wins were the result of luck of the draw as much as anything, though the head coach was a great teacher, too.

We knew the first day of practice our team was stacked with good players. Winning all those games, the coaches and parents loved it. The kids enjoyed it, too. But, how many of the kids truly improved their skills that year? Some did. But no more than on the team I coached the next year, when we lost most of our games. In fact, I saw more personal skill improvement on the losing team than on the winning team. Losing can do that to you.

And of all the victories over those two seasons, the most memorable win wasn't the final one clinching the undefeated season, but that first win in the losing season after we'd opened with an 0-4 record. It was special, not because we ended up with more goals than the other team (technically, this league didn't keep score), but because we overcame adversity, worked hard, pulled together and improved.

The focus of youth soccer should be on teaching them about fair play and sportsmanship; about hard work and teamwork; and about being healthy and active. Along the way, they may learn how to deal with adversity. If they lose, hopefully the learn how to lose with dignity; if they win, how to do so with humility.

With proper coaching and practice, they will each improve their own soccer skills, becoming better players and more confident kids. That can happen on a team that wins, as much as a team that loses -- as tough as it is for many parents to take.

6. Let Them Play

Finally, all of us involved in soccer -- as parents, grandparents and coaches -- should remember this simple youth soccer saying: "Let Them Play."

There will be time for instruction, for skill development and for learning the finer points of the game that all us adults can more clearly understand (from the sidelines). The best way for kids to learn is to play: to kick the ball, to trap it, to pass and to shoot, to score goals, to make mistakes, to win and to lose.

The reality is that most children who play youth soccer are never going to turn pro. I'm not trying to burst bubbles, but according to U.S. Youth Soccer, some three million children will register to play the sport this year. There are only 11 starting spots on each of the U.S. national teams.

Being great at soccer is a laudable goal, and we shouldn't take that dream away from any kid. But, there are many more lessons to be learned. As adults, we just have to get out of the way and let them play.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Please Don't Shank Your Sister

One of the best toys ever, say my kids.
(Ruddy Bits and its subsidiaries have not
been compensated for this opinion).
“It’s a jail!”

“No! It’s juvie!”

“No. It’s a jail!”

“It’s juvie!”

Of all the arguments I’ve witnessed as a parent, this had to be the strangest, most surreal one yet. Our 6-year-old daughter had just used Magna Tiles™ to build herself a little structure, and decided to put a few small dolls inside. She called it a jail.

Along came our 4-year-old son, who never lets anyone play with these magnetic building blocks alone. (For the record, this is not a sponsored post. But if the fine folks at Magna Tiles want to send over a few, we'll gladly accept them.) 

They all love these particular toys, and
have had years of building fun creations with them. Even more so than their Legos. As a parent, the worst part about the tiles is that the kids always have them out. They like the darned things that much.

Whenever anyone is building with the Magna Tiles, the boy always either joins in the creative fun, or pretends he’s Godzilla and promptly destroys the structure with wanton malice.  

On this occasion, he decided to join the fun. He too went and got a few of his action figures and dolls, and decided they also deserved time in the plastic prison. 

I tried not to worry much about why my kids were building prisons in their free time. It’s not like we focus on incarceration as a family. We don’t watch “Orange is the New Black,” and if we did, we certainly would not let our kids watch it. And we're not from Texas, where I hear prison building is an acceptable past-time -- that and obsessing over high school football.

On the contrary, I find our country's incarceration rates quite troubling, if not downright embarrassing. But that's another blog.

So, while I did find it a bit odd, I thought that if the kids want to hone their building skills by constructing high-security facilities to which they can sentence their naughtiest dolls – and the ones that just caught a bad break – so be it.

It didn’t really bother me that much.

Yet, when they started fighting over whether to call it “Jail” or “Juvie,” I got a bit concerned.

"Jail!" screamed the 6-year-old girl again.

"Juvie!" shouted the boy through increasingly clenched teeth.

My concern was this: How does a 4-year-old raised in my house know that juvenile detention centers are called “juvie” in the first place? Heck, how does he know about juvenile detention centers at all?

It’s not like the misses and I are always leveraging threats of “juvie” on them so they’ll obey our many, and often ignored, commands.

The words “Clean your room, or you’re going to juvie!” have not once been uttered in our house.

My kids have yet to discover the Simpsons.
So Bart isn't to blame for this one.  
Yet here was my 4-year-old son standing over a small box building, which was housing four small stuffed animals and two action figures (prison overcrowding apparently is an issue here), vehemently stating that it was “juvie!” and not just a jail.

This particular argument came to an abrupt end when the boy tried to shank his sister with a triangular Magna Tile.

At that point I figured my “parent of the year” qualifications were under threat, so I intervened. First I disarmed the boy without incident. Then I put him in solitary.

After the situation was under control, I thought it might be prudent to find out how these kids know about juvie in the first place. So I asked his 6-year-old sister what “juvie” means – for clarification, and to begin my Jedi-like parenting discussion.

“It’s kid jail, dad. Duh,” she replied.

“Oh. And who told you about it?”

I figured it must've been some Disney show that slipped passed the radar.  

She looked around, to make sure no one was about to hear her sing to the resident authorities. Then she whispered, “Chloe told us.” 

That’s their 8-year-old sister.

Of course. That makes sense. Because, by eight, all kids know about kid jail. … I think.

I wish there was some deep lesson or moral to this tale. But there isn’t. Other than that little kids with older siblings learn stuff a lot earlier than we want them to.

Oh, and that Magna Tiles can be used to make a fairly secure detention facility, for dolls and action figures of all ages.

Isn't learning fun?

Now clean up the Magna Tiles or you're all going to juvie.