I never wanted to be a Dream Killer.
And yet, there I was, standing in the kitchen while my son screamed that I was “killing his dream.”
“Killing your dream?” I asked, in disbelief.
He was 8 years old and apparently his dream was to play football in the NFL. I reminded him how few football players actually make it into the NFL, and he reminded me that this was why he needed to start practicing now.
He collapsed in a puddle of his tears, mumbling about his slaughtered dream. I told him that his dad and I would talk about it. I didn’t give him a definite answer, though in my head, I was thinking, Hell NO, you’re not playing football.
But in my heart? Well, my heart just didn’t know what to do.
This wasn’t the first tough parenting decision I’ve had to make, and it certainly won’t be the last, but for some reason it felt tougher than the others. For one, I respect the validity of every perspective of the play-or-don’t-play-football debate. What’s more, I lacked a strong intuitive pull about what the right decision was—a pull that I have relied on to deal with other parenting challenges in the past. Experts might tell us one thing, but practicality and our own intuition guide us as well. And though I have made decisions that went against experts’ advice with things like breastfeeding, time-outs and screen time, I don’t have the intuition or personal experience to guide me through the decision about whether or not to let my son play youth football or engage in many other dangerous activities for that matter. If I made football off-limits, would I also forbid him from skateboarding? What about hockey, or skiing, or rock climbing?
To be honest, I just didn’t know.
Let me be clear: I am well aware of the safety risks of playing football. I have researched head injuries, read the articles about former football players’ mental health problems, and heard the statements made by famous players denouncing the sport. I knew that my husband and I needed to take these risks and safety concerns seriously. We did, and we do.
But I also needed to consider the risks of not letting my son play youth football. I didn’t want to be a Dream Killer—what parent does?—but I also didn’t want to create a situation in which my son began to fear risks or question his dreams. Maybe it’s because I was an overly cautious child, but I don’t want my kids to avoid something—whether it is riding their bike with no hands, downhill skiing, asking a date to the prom, scuba diving, or taking a job in a foreign country—just because there are risks involved. Instead, I want to teach them to be informed of the risks, weigh the risks against the potential rewards, and then make smart decisions for themselves.
My approach to parenting can best be described as controlled risk-taking. When my son climbed into the tall branches of the pine tree in our backyard, for instance, I only paused to take a picture before reminding him to be smart about his climbing. As much as I hate the labels we put on parenting styles, if I had to choose a side, I would say I lean more heavily toward the free-range end of the spectrum than the helicopter side.
Nonetheless, as parents, we draw the line at a number of things we deem unsafe, regardless of how smart our kids are about managing those risks. We don’t let our children run in the middle of busy streets. We don’t let them play with fire. We don’t let them ride their bikes without a helmet (okay, sometimes we do, but we feel guilty about it).
So regardless of where we came out on the issue, I didn’t want to throw down a quick “yes” or “no” without careful consideration and a lengthy discussion about the risks with my son. To me, my son understanding how we arrived at our decision was just as important as what our decision was—maybe even more so.
In the end, we agreed to let him play (with the caveat that we would continue to revisit the issue over time), reasoning that he would try it and move on before the risks increased. Then a week before the season was scheduled to start, however, my son took a ball in the stomach and decided that maybe football wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
He was sure. The next day he quit football and signed up for baseball instead.
And I erased Dream Killer from my parenting resume, for the time being, at least. Because just last week, he said he wants to be a football player when he grows up.
So maybe I’ll have to write Dream Killer on my mom resume after all. But if I do, I’m writing it in pencil.