“Sean, you’re not a very good pitcher.” My mom’s words cut like a knife at 10-year’s old after a baseball season which started out with strong performances on the mound, but ended in a game when I was taken off the mound and sent, unceremoniously, to play shortstop.
I was a great hitter in those days, and a darn good first baseman, but I also wanted to pitch. The problem was that I wasn’t very good at it. I couldn’t find the strike zone. At one point my team suffered through multiple games watching me walk the bases loaded and walk run ins. Our team was good, so we mostly overcame the obstacles I erected, but nevertheless, my Won-Loss record was less than reputable.
Then my mom told me I stunk as a pitcher. After that, I quit pitching.
In today’s parenting culture, my mother would be raked over the coals for not being encouraging enough or supporting me or helping me dream big. I understand why the rod of contemporary parents is bent toward encouragement. Too many people grew up with too little encouragement. Some had none at all. As I told parents when I was a youth worker, more people die of a broken heart than a swelled head. I get it. I really do, but concurrent with a parents job to encourage, is their much more delicate duty to discourage.
But first, let’s distinguish “discouragement” from being a downer or jerk or disheartening your children. A certain kind of discouragement is designed to make folks feel badly about themselves and their abilities. That’s not what we’re after. To discourage someone is simply to persuade them against an action. Encouragement, then, is to give support or confidence for an action. Parents cannot be one-note. We have to both encourage and discourage, lest our children be ill-equipped to face the world, deal with reality, and run amok. Discouragement allows the people we love to focus more intently on God’s gifting in them.
Here’s what I mean: When my mom discouraged my pitching, I didn’t shrink into life’s background. I developed deeper virtues.
In response, I focused on my fielding and redoubled my attention on batting. I could do this because my mom had been otherwise encouraging. As a boy, my mother was present for every baseball and soccer game, every band concert, and every other amateur undertaking I attempted. Even today she listens to every sermon posted online and reads every word I write (Hi Mom). She wants me to win in life.
Second, my brother and I were taught, from our earliest days, that quitting was never an option. Regardless of how well or poorly we performed, we could not and would not quit. Resilience was built into our mental and emotional hardware. When I quit pitching, I didn’t stop playing baseball. In the intervening years, my brother and I have faced multiple setbacks, each time, we stopped, pulled ourselves together, made the best of it and move forward with renewed energy. When I look back over the arch of my life, I’m equally grateful to my parents for their encouragement and discouragement.
I fear one of the necessary virtues lost to modern parents is bestowing the gift of discouragement. There seems to be so much focus on encouraging kids, that some of us have forgotten, not everything is praiseworthy. Without doses of both encouragement and discouragement humans are destined to set themselves adrift into seas for which they were not designed.