He refined his childrearing theory further with the backyard pitching, catching, throwing, fielding, kicking, punting, dribbling form of fatherhood. We didn’t get all the fancy toys that required batteries or an electrical engineer to operate. We weren’t allowed to play with anything that made us better in school or made us smarter. For us, learning did not necessarily link to fun. We were kids, so we thought fun and learning could, in fact, be mutually exclusive. And our parents raised us this way.
I shall now list the toys we had when we were kids:
glove, (1 per child)
soccer ball (1)
mud (just add water to dirt)
boxing gloves (1 pair, to be used among the three of us)
basketball (usually flat)
bicycles (1 per child)
At times, the sports equipment could get a little expensive, but my parents figured that they were getting the dirt, sticks, rocks and trees for free, so the least they could do was to fill in the gaps for the rest of that stuff. Dad wanted us to be able to know how to play, and he wanted us to be able to play well. Not so that we could become professional athletes, or even for us to be able to play in college. None of us were remotely that good. No, Dad wanted us to play well because playing, well, is FUN! Just fun. That’s it.
Play was neither a step for another level, nor was it a method of teaching a transcendent lesson about existence. We didn’t think that football “built character” or baseball was a “teambuilding exercise.” It didn’t occur to us that we could learn something about humanity at the same time we were getting dirty or sweaty or both. We played because we were kids and we wanted to play, not because our moral fiber was strengthened through dedication to sport.
It was fun. In fact, the funnest parts were when Dad himself, in full teacher/coach mode, almost got his head taken off by a line drive, or an errant throw, or a misguided punt. He taught us how to play, but he had fun, too. Even when the fun was dangerous.
Dad can tell you the times when he came closest to death as a father. Mostly, these near-death moments came when one of us would suddenly catch on to a game that we’d been trying for a week or so. For example, Dad taught us all to throw, catch and hit a baseball. We all had similar training to hit a baseball: bend at the knee, swing level, keep your eye on the ball.
My older brother and I were decent hitters, especially before curve balls and large, hairy high school pitching. We got the basics of hitting down pretty well. But we weren’t naturally good. My younger brother, however, showed that, while he could bend at the knee, swing level, and keep his eye on the ball, he also had an extra step to his hitting that my older brother and I didn’t have: quick wrists.
In baseball terminology, having quick wrists means that the batter can wait a split second or two longer than one who does not have “quick wrists.” Waiting longer allows the batter to determine what kind of pitch is thrown as well as whether the pitch is “hittable” or not.
Since Luke had “quick wrists,” Dad often thought that the pitches he had thrown were not going to be hit by Luke. And then, WHACK! Luke would swing around on a pitch from Dad and send the ball screaming back at him, throat level.
In fact, Dad incorporated protectionary measures in his pitching wind-up, especially when he pitched to Luke. He would kick up his leg, step toward the plate, fling his arm toward the hitter and release the ball. As Dad released, his glove hand would fly up toward his head, covering his face, while his throwing hand would come down, covering his private area. (Yes, there were many times where we would slowly creep away from the backyard, leaving Dad in a balled-up heap on the ground, weeping softly.)
Although we had hours and hours and hours of playtime, kicking and throwing and hitting, none of those skills help me with fatherhood. No, the greatest skill Dad ever taught any of us is the skill of doing nothing productive. For a self-professed workaholic, Dad believed that a kid should have plenty of time to do nothing, sitting around, scratching his belly, belching, picking his nose, and giggling. (Maybe not all at the same time, but you get the point.)
For children to be able to do this, parents needed to have control, too. Our lives as children were not scheduled to the hilt with French lessons, tuba practice, four athletic teams, late-night tutoring or any other activity that Mom and Dad thought would help us “succeed.”