Your child doesn’t have to play in the Super Bowl for you to know the feeling. Their team was supposed to win and then they didn’t. What do you do? Being the mother of two girls who played soccer and ran track, I thought I knew the answer: Talk it through. Tell them you love them. Say it’s just a game. Remind them there’s always a next time. Isn’t that what good parenting is all about? Keeping channels of communication open even in tough moments?
Turns out the answer is no. I learned this when I had a “don’t speak” moment.
If you’ve never seen Dianne Wiest in “Bullets Over Broadway,” it’s worth a look. Her performance as an imperious Broadway star won her an Oscar, in part because of a superbly played line that runs through the movie like a heartbeat. Outstretched arm, palm up like a stop sign in front of John Cusack’s mouth, Wiest practically hurls her command, “Don’t speak. Don’t. Don’t speak.”
My “don’t speak” moment came in a more mundane setting. I was standing on a grassy hill at a high school soccer game, and the command was delivered by a parent named Peter, whose daughter is a year older than mine. This made him an ideal adviser; he had already been where I was now, and he hadn’t yet had time to forget.
We had come to cheer on our girls in a high-stakes varsity soccer game. The winner would go on to represent the county in the state tournament. For the seniors, it was the last chance to grab an elusive championship for the school. Adding pressure, the opposing team was a rival from a nearby town.
My daughter, a junior, was new to the team, but her drive to win was strong. No one was cocky, but they had the confidence that comes with a winning season. You could feel the communal belief that this would be the year they went all the way. They just needed this last win.
Their lead slipped to a tie toward the end of the second half. In the last minute of play there was a stumble, scrambling and a goal for the other team.
Parents supplied transportation for home games, so we waited while our daughters gave sullen high-fives to the winners and then huddled with their coach, listening as he shared his disappointment. When he was done they separated and, backpacks slung over shoulders, trudged across the field toward where we stood.
Watching their grim faces approach I wished a meteorologist were present to confirm my suspicion that 22 high school girls who’ve just lost a chance at a state title can change the atmosphere, collectively sucking the light out of the sky. Their fury was frightening.
But Peter had been through this before. “Don’t speak,” he said. As I started to turn my head he added, “Don’t look. Just walk. Go to your car. She’ll find you.”
I tried not to move my lips as I objected. “All I want to say is I’m sorry.”
“Don’t,” he advised. “Don’t speak. Not until she talks to you.”
Because he had been through this before, I listened and walked to my car alone. I felt her before I saw her, walking silently beside me. Reassuring phrases immediately formed in my brain but, channeling Peter, I said nothing.
A moment later I noticed her teammates walking with their parents, mothers mostly, who offered words of consolation. “Are you okay?” and “You played well,” and “There’s always next time.” To me the words sounded gentle and kind.
The girls did not agree. “No,” they snapped, and “I sucked,” and “There won’t be a next time.”
By the time we reached the car, every daughter except mine was crying and the moms were, understandably, annoyed and lashing back. “Why are you yelling at me?” and “Being upset is no excuse for being rude.”
We were silent on the ride home, silent as I turned on to our street. It was when I pulled into the driveway that my daughter finally spoke. “That was such a bad game.”
Her voice was quiet when she said, “They shouldn’t have won.”
And mine was quiet when I agreed. “I know.”
She got out of the car and asked, “What’s for dinner?” and I told her. When she went upstairs to shower, I phoned Peter to thank him.
“Any other magical advice?” I asked.
He laughed and said, “No, that’s it.”
“That’s okay,” I told him. “That’s enough.”
On the continuum of empathetic to indifferent, I’m right there with the empaths from “Minority Report.” I’m not boasting; sometimes feeling other people’s pain isn’t helpful. Still, if you’ve suffered a setback, I’m usually a pretty good choice of companion. If I see someone is hurting, I’m not shy about acknowledging their pain. What a revelation to discover that’s nothing compared to standing as silent witness.
But what about that pesky keeping-channels-of-communication-open thing? How does staying silent jive with that?
The answer came to me later when I realized I’d misunderstood Peter’s point. The goal of silence wasn’t to prevent conversation. It was to give my daughter space to initiate it. “Don’t speak” really meant “listen first.” And the day of her soccer game, it worked like magic.
In the years since my “don’t speak” moment, I’ve had many chances to practice what I learned. Moments with big questions such as: Which college should I go to? Which job would be better? Which wedding dress should I pick? Moments that would have ended poorly if I hadn’t learned that lesson: To wait and find out my daughter’s opinion before I chimed in with mine.
I still see Peter sometimes and when I do I always want to ask, “Any more magical advice?” But I know he would just laugh and say, “No, that’s it.” And I’d say, “That’s okay. That’s enough.”
Nancy Star is a former movie executive and author of Sisters One, Two, Three. In addition to The Washington Post, her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Family Circle. Visit her at nancystarauthor.com and follow her on Twitter @NancyStarAuthor.
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