Can you make your kid love the sport you love?

Adapted from the “Against the Grain” column in the April 2016 issue of Golf Chicago Magazine

The indoctrination begins.

Within seconds of my wife saying she was pregnant — after a few joyous expletives — one of my first thoughts was, “I hope he loves golf.” Actually, at the time it was more like, I hope “it” loves golf. To be clear, my thought wasn’t, “I really hope it wins the Masters” or even “I hope it beats all the other kids,” although I‘d be fine with either, or both.

But yes, initially it was a purely selfish thought, in the same way all parents want their kids to like and do the things they like and do. But this obsession with our kids following our passions is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, people had kids in order to milk more cows and shuck more corn so the family could survive the winter; children were utilities rather than embodiments of our desires. Remember, a baby goat is called a kid.

Now though, pop into any youth soccer match or baseball game or dance recital, and what you’ll see is a bunch of adults swelling with pride (and sometimes envy, and sometimes even shame) over their kids’ performance.

This is not to suggest that all parents use their kids as pawns to carry out their unfulfilled dreams; it’s actually more insidious. I think we’ve been sold that the more our kids are “involved” in “activities,” the more likely they’ll become as passionate as we are — and if they snag a D-1 scholarship in the process, we’ll take it.

Which brings us back to my son Sam’s future as a golfer. My uncle, who introduced me to the game, says “don’t push.” He did everything he could to get his son hooked, and the more he pushed, the more his son pivoted to other pursuits — he became a triathlete-pianist. My father-in-law wanted so badly for my wife to play that he taught her with the intensity of a tour-level coach, breaking down the nuances of the swing and critiquing her every move until he completely squeezed out all of the fun of the game.

When I ask my father-friends for the key to getting my kid into something I love, they respond with some version of: “Your kid is going to do what your kid is going to do. All you can do is expose him to a bunch of things and support him in what he likes.”

I might be naive, but that answer doesn’t sit well. I want Sam to be an avid reader. Doesn’t that depend on how much I read with him? I want him to eat healthily. Doesn’t that depend on how I eat in front of him? I want him to not be a jerk…you follow. So how is golf any different? If he grows up around the game and sees the spiritual, emotional, physical, and social benefits it provides his father, will he not adopt it as part of his DNA? I’m sure that finding the balance between pushing too hard and not pushing enough is not easy in sport, let alone child rearing, but I want to believe that certain passions are just too good to not love. Yes, I’m biased, but it’s not like I’m hoping he grows up to love Grand Theft Auto or reality TV.

As any parent will attest, having a child completely reshapes your world. It’s like going from an old, blurry 13-inch standard definition television to a 65-inch HD. Your priorities and your weaknesses come into such sharp focus that sometimes you have to look away or your eyes will water. Extraneous interests and relationships begin to fall by the wayside and what’s left is what really matters.

But I submit that the guys who say “You’ll stop playing once you have kids” never loved the game the way I do.

Our pediatrician said something before Sam had even left the womb that has stuck with me. Andrea and I were asking her recommendations of great parenting books. She smiled as if she’d heard it a thousand times. “You want to know the key to parenting? Enjoy your child. Just have fun with him.” Any golfer knows that the same principle applies to playing well — if you focus on enjoying what you’re doing and stop analyzing and questioning every decision, you tend to play better. Less wind-checking, more grabbing a club and swinging. Less plumb-bobbing, more having a quick look at the line and trusting your instinct. Less shaking your head over a birdie putt, more smiling at the bladed chip-in for bogie.

If there’s another activity that is so clearly a metaphor for life and allows me to spend hours at a time with my son, I haven’t seen it. Fishing is a close second, but I’m bad at it, and I have a compulsive fear of getting lost in the woods.

Sam is eight-months-old now, so he’s starting to develop a little personality. I try to imagine what kind of player he would be, what kind of disposition he would have on the course. He strikes me as a Freddy Couples or Ryan Moore type: laid back but laser-focused when it matters most.

Or maybe that’s just how I see myself. There I go, awash in self-indulgence. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to put a golf ball in Sam’s crib.