The 10-year-old retired from soccer a year ago. I want to think I learned some lessons from the experience, mostly about how to motivate a kid who wholly loathed everything about it -- from dragging him to practices to begging him to pay attention during games.
Honestly, I was relieved when he found rock climbing; partly because it was something he loved, but also because it meant I didn't have to endure the weekly stress that came with sitting through those practices and games.
And not only that, I could apply what I learned through that four-plus-year ordeal to his younger brother, who began his foray into the wonderful world of rec-league soccer last fall. The five-year-old has been slightly more engaged in the process, and genuinely seemed to like practice. He still struggled to focus during games, but save a couple kids, this is a recurring theme for every parent. Five-year-olds are notorious for their terrible attention spans. It's one of the reasons they can't run for president.
After the fall season, the five-year-old would occasionally ask me to practice with him, and I was always happy to oblige. So when soccer started up again a few weeks ago, he seemed excited to get back out there with his coach and teammates. The first few spring practices went well, and I felt like he was less prone to the distractions passing clouds or random clumps of dandelions sometimes offer. But just to make sure, I did want any great parent would do: I offered a bribe.
So here's how it went down: The first game of the season was last Saturday morning. About an hour before, while I was getting him into his uniform, we had this conversation:
Me: Hey, so here's the deal. If you score a goal, I'll get you some LEGOs.
Him: (Eyes widen)
Me: What do you think of that?
Him: Are you SERIOUS?!
Me: Yeah. In fact, as soon as we get home from the game, we'll go right out and get them.
Him, still skeptical: So do you mean a little LEGO guy or like a LEGO set?
Me: It'll be a set! All you have to do is pay attention to your coach and score a goal! Oh, and one more thing. Let's keep this between us.
Just so we're clear, I don't care if he ever scores a goal. But when I first tried the "I'll bribe you to play soccer" master plan when the 10-year-old was just starting out, I made the mistake of promising him a dollar for "paying attention." The lack of specificity meant that he was under no obligation to try to kick a passing ball, or chase after the ball should it not be in his immediate vicinity. It also meant that he'd turn to me during the game -- which, by definition, meant he wasn't paying attention -- to ask if he had done enough for that dollar.
Lesson learned. This time I offered up details to protect myself against loopholes unwitting kids have a knack for stumbling into. Plus, I felt like the five-year-old was quite capable of scoring and I was just helping to nudge him in that direction.
I didn't really see a downside -- he'd pay attention, probably end up scoring a goal and feel great about it while we cheered him on. Added bonus: He'd get some LEGOs.
Smash-cut to midway through the third quarter when literally every one of his teammates had scored at least one goal and he was still sitting on zero. There he was, standing in the middle of the field, bawling like ... well, a kid whose brilliant old man promised him LEGOs if he scored a goal and he hadn't really come close to doing it.
There's more: I didn't tell the wife about my plan, so when she walked around the other side of the field to console him once he made his way to the bench, she had an "Oh, wow, he really is upset about not playing well!" surprised look on her face. I knew differently, though I certainly wasn't going to bring that up.
Not to worry though; once the game was over -- and nope, he didn't score, despite the coach's best efforts to get him a goal -- the five-year-old said loudly, and as tears streamed down his face, "I REALLY WANTED THOSE LEGOS" when asked why he was so upset.
It was then that the wife game me the side eye, to which I responded with the ol' "Yeah, I may have overplayed my hand" shoulder shrug.
Good news: We have five more games to get a goal.
Bad news: I don't know what to bribe him with next.