Let Them Lead

Left: What he wants; Right: What I want for him

I took my four-year-old to the tennis court the other day to teach him the game I fell in love with as a kid.

I was a 4-time city champion in Flint (granted, there were only four teams but who’s counting) and have spent my career teaching kids. I knew what I needed to do: start simple, let him experience some success, and leave while he was still having a good time.

We started with a simple drill, where James stood at the center of the court and I hit balls to his forehand. James swung like he was swatting a bee, not making contact. Yikes. Rough start.

Sensing his frustration, I had an idea. I had to be the responsible and responsive educator, and meet my student where he was and adjust accordingly.

So for the next drill I brought him to my side of the net and simply dropped a ball and told him to let it bounce, then smack it over. This time, fewer whiffs but still not proficient. As we gathered the balls, I considered how I might modify the next drill.

Another genius idea from an experienced educator: before I dropped the first ball, I said “James, if you hit the ball, you get one point. If you hit it over the net, you get two points.” He nodded with excitement. I almost patted myself on the back with my racquet. He was getting it, and he was loving it.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

My chest puffed as I silently congratulated myself for entering the realm of Superdad.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Bounce…thwack. Over the net.

Seven in a row over the net.

“James! Buddy! You got it! Look at you!”

The “lightbulb” going on…the “aha moment.” It was happening. I envisioned James thanking me for being such an inspiration in his acceptance speech at the 2040 U.S. Open. This is why I became an educator. Heck, this is why I became a father!

“James, let’s do it again, huh?! Let’s gather up these balls and see how many more we can get over the net!”

He looked up, cocked his head a little with an ambivalent smile, then shrugged.

“Nah, I think I’ll go climb that tree.”

And with that, he dropped his racquet and ambled away, leaving me and my crushed dreams of being a proud, rich tennis parent on the steaming asphalt.

After collecting myself, I went over to see if I might be able to change James’ mind, but before I could start in on my lecture, he blurted out:

“Dad, you know why I like climbing trees better than tennis? Because you don’t get points. You just climb the tree and have fun. And I like that it makes you stronger. And you’re off the ground but you can breathe, not like swimming. Dad, did you know trees are nature’s playground? ”

The student had become the teacher.

For the next several minutes I just watched James climb that tree. I managed to step back from my ego and acknowledge what a fool I was for thinking I could control my kid’s likes and dislikes.

Then, this:

“Dad, how much do you love me?”

“From here all the way out to space and back.”

“James, how much do you love me?”

“From the top of this tree all the way to the edge of the universe. Because you let me climb this tree and didn’t make me play tennis.”

This episode has been top of mind this week in meetings with students, parents, and staff. Whether it’s steering them into a certain AP class, making them play a sport they hate or insisting they apply to our alma mater, we can often get so caught up in what we want for them – out of love, of course – that they never figure out what they want for themselves. So this year I’m going to try my best to let students lead those conversations about who they are and who they want to be. I’m going to let them, if they need to, go climb a tree.

I hope you’ll join me.

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