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Lessons in fatherhood: 'The ball needs air'

With seven children, I'm occasionally tempted to consider myself a parenting expert. Then something happens to remind me I'm not - and that the little I know doesn't always apply.

Recently I had to relearn (the hard way, of course) a basic rule of parenting: Unspoken messages are frequently more important than spoken ones.

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It was a clear, cold Sunday. I'd promised to play basketball with Michael, my 10-year-old. Today would be the day.

"You think the ball needs air?" Michael asked, on the way to the car.

"Maybe a little, but not enough to worry about," I replied.

"More than a little," Michael said.

As we drove to the playground, Michael studied the ball, squeezed it, pretended to shoot. "It needs air," he said again.

"Just ignore it," I told him.

At the playground, on the only court not overrun by players, a lone boy dribbled and shot. "Mind if we join you?" I asked.

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The boy shook his head. He was maybe two years older than Michael. Despite the cold, he'd pulled off his jacket and was playing in only a T-shirt.

I watched him sink a jump shot, then turned to my son.

Michael missed his first two shots.

"The ball needs air," he complained.

"It's OK," I replied.

"It's not. I can't shoot when it doesn't have air," he said.

I sighed - and recalled that when I was a boy we'd played with dead balls, live balls - even balls with the lining pushing through tears in the cover.

"It has air," I offered. "Besides, air has nothing to do with shooting."

"It does," Michael said. "The ball's heavier."

"It's lighter."

"Oh, no," Michael argued.

He shot again and missed. "See," he said.

I picked up the ball, bounced it, tossed up a shot. Surprisingly, it went in.

"Good shot," the boy said.

He was bouncing his ball between his legs.

When he lofted a one-hander that missed, I grabbed the rebound and snapped him a pass.

"Thanks," he said.

When Michael fired up another shot, I retrieved his ball and snapped him a pass.

Too hard, I thought, as the ball zipped between his hands and struck him in the solar plexus. He bent forward, his eyes filling with tears.

"You OK?" I asked.

He nodded, then straightened up, then, after a few seconds, tried another shot.

It missed - as did the next, and the next.

"Take off your jacket," I suggested.

"It's freezing," Michael said.

I shook my head. I was getting nowhere.

A few minutes later, the ball rolled past Michael into a puddle.

He stared at it.

"Well?" I said.

"It's wet over there. Besides..."

"Besides what?"

"Let's go."

"We just got here!"

"It's cold. And I can't shoot with this ball."

I walked to the puddle, and picked up the ball. What had happened to our afternoon?

Back at the house, I asked myself the same question.

The answer, I decided, was simple: Michael had wanted to impress me, but was afraid he might not do well. So he took advantage of an available excuse: the deflated ball.

As his missed shots piled up, so did the excuses. And I, instead of realizing he was sending distress signals, scoffed.

And, worse, I compared him - in ways that no doubt showed - with me - and the other boy.

I glanced into the dining room. Michael was sitting at the table, shuffling a deck of cards.

"Wanna play Nooks?" he asked. (Nooks is a card game he'd learned recently, then taught me.)

"Sure," I said.

Michael shuffled the cards "bridging" them in his cupped hands.

"Pretty good," I remarked awkwardly.

"What?"

"The bridge."

"I've been practicing."

"I can't do it," I said.

"Oh," Michael replied.

He bridged the cards again, then dealt them.

We played a game, another, a third. Slowly, the tension dissipated.

"You trying your hardest?" Michael asked. (He'd won all three games.)

"Sure," I said.

"You better be."

"I am."

I smiled (his invitation to play had been another message - this time one of healing).

"We should play next week," I offered.

"What?"

"Basketball."

"Oh," Michael said. His eyes shifted downward; his grip on his cards tightened.

"You know, you're right," I went on.

"About what?"

"The ball. It needs air."

"Oh," Michael said.

He studied his cards for a moment. Then a smile crept across his face, and he tossed down a winner.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society