Parenting is Like a Lifelong Game of Dodgeball

On a sunny day years ago, I called my husband in hysterics, trying to relay to him what had just gone down (literally) on the driveway of our home. As I was unloading groceries from the car, my then-five-year-old daughter decided to buckle my two-year-old son into their toy jeep – whether she decided to “let it rip” or he pushed off, remains disputed to this day.

She screamed, I spotted the jeep upside down in the brush at the bottom of the hill, and my son emitted terrified cries. Panicked, I sprinted down the hill and flipped the jeep over, yanking him out — not exactly the clichéd mother defying the laws of physics to lift a two-ton car off her child, but you get the idea. Other than a few scratches, my son was miraculously fine.

Parenting is like a game of dodgeball

On the phone with my seasoned husband (he had been parenting my stepson for 11 years), I agonized over what might have been — “What if a car had been coming? What if he had broken bones or suffered internal injuries?”

He quickly cut me off with some much-needed perspective: “Relax! Parenting is like a lifelong game of dodgeball – sometimes you turn the jeep over and you’re hit with a real problem, and sometimes you catch a break and dodge the ball. Be thankful nothing horrible happened and move on!”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but his words would continue to guide me over the years as I undertook to mother these little people into adults.

When they were younger, the game was physical – if we could emerge from the bumps and bruises of childhood relatively unscathed, it was a straight-up victory. The hideous but harmless goose egg on my daughter’s forehead after belly flopping into the coffee table, the “super glue” stitches used at the ER to close the divot on my son’s head after he slammed into a wall, these were all balls successfully dodged. Though this phase of mothering angst was unsettling and terrifying at times, the dodgeball analogy began to set in. Crisis is part and parcel to the parenting gig. We must learn to accept this reality, deal with the fallout gracefully and move forward as appropriate.

Just as I got my arms around the rules, the nature of the game began to change. We entered tween-land, and someone switched out the rubber dodgeballs for sturdier, more elusive ones. Disappointed by friends, excluded by classmates, embarrassed by feeling different – few kids escape the scourge of middle school.

“Venues” moved further away, as the kids spent more time interacting in classrooms and friends’ backyards than under my watchful eye. While these new balls didn’t leave the physical scars that were the hallmark of the earlier years, they were painful in a whole different way. The resultant “injuries” were harder to diagnose (no MRIs exist to detect a bruised spirit), and even trickier to treat as we eased our tweens and young teens into the grown-up concepts that life isn’t always fair and people aren’t always kind. We found ourselves unwittingly assigned to the sidelines, left to bark out occasional suggestions and warn of pitfalls and opportunities seen from our panoramic view.

As my kids have become older teens/young adults, the game has evolved again. The balls seem to have morphed into darts — sharper, literally lethal and launched with a frightening precision. The game has come full circle as the primacy of the physical threats has returned. Only, instead of me strapping them into state-of-the-art car seats, they climb into passenger seats and behind wheels where non fully formed frontal lobes make split-second decisions that can have devastating consequences. Toy jeeps careening down driveways give way to phone calls from the side of a road reporting, “Mom, I was in an accident.” (Warning – once your child starts driving, you will never again see her name appear on your phone without your heart taking a dive).

They attend parties where peers push them to make choices about alcohol, sex, and drugs under the glare of judgmental eyes. And, my daughter now lives on a college campus, where the media regularly informs me binge drinking and rapists (some disguised as friends) lurk.

[More on binge drinking and the developing brain here.]

In the teen/young adult years, it’s as if the family team splits into two “squads.” On one field, my kids must navigate their own game of dodgeball – while their Dad and I are left on another to hope we have taught them well over the years to be alert, observant in all directions, and swift to move out of harm’s way.

The days of setting up folding chairs, weighing in from the sidelines in real-time, or suggesting adjustments at halftime are long gone. Relegated to the parent squad, we don’t get to dress for or attend road games. We wave goodbye, man the home field, and wait. We high-five them when they return home safely, and offer the comforts and reassurance that only their most devoted fan base can when things do not go as they hoped. If we are lucky, they may offer a post game play-by-play of events and even invite our input.

So, taking a page out of my husband’s book, here’s my attempt to pay it forward:

• In the early rounds:

Utilize the opportunity to model grace under pressure during those inevitable moments of physical crisis. To the child who takes a hideous tumble on the sidewalk, affirmatively announce “you’re okay!” — as opposed to offering the interrogatory and panicked, “are you okay?” Even though you may see bone sticking out of skin, apply your game face and display the “we got this” mentality. You’ll use this template for years, in many different contexts.

• During the tween and early teen years:

Lay groundwork for when your children will be in the game without you as a referee or spectator. Because we desperately love our children, too often we throw ourselves in front of the ball or scream a warning of “incoming.” Resist the pull to always try to fix things for them, embrace that working through the messiness of relationships oneself is an essential life skill, and teach them the nuts and bolts of advocating for themselves.

• With teens and young adults:

Cultivate an environment of acceptance such that they will be comfortable sharing challenging experiences after the fact and allowing you to offer some targeted guidance. This means curbing our own anxiety regarding potential pitfalls and masking our terror about something they may confess has actually already occurred. Remember that game face you developed in the early years when you saw blood? Channel it. If your kids are worried about your reaction or whether you can handle what is going on in their lives, they will hesitate to share.

For this Mom, the ever-evolving game of dodgeball plays on. I have made peace with its overall premise. Shit happens, some of which you see coming and some of which blindsides you. Some balls whiz by your head, while others land direct hits. Lest I become consumed by the multitude of threats life presents, on some level, I must reconcile with “surrendering to the universe.”

There is so much I cannot control or even influence, but I thank God every time I flip the jeep over and am looking at nothing but scratches. As I kiss the divot scar on my son’s head every night before he goes to bed, or I walk by my daughter’s scratched and dinged car in the driveway, I can’t help but smile. Odd as it may seem, to me these are the hard-earned “ribbons” of games won – nicks and scars for sure, but proof positive of balls dodged and that we survive and advance to the next round.


Knowing My Sons a Little Less 

Saying Goodbye to the Sideline

A Review of Julie Lythcott-Haims: How to Raise an Adult 

CDB Headshot

Christine Bachman is an attorney and mother of three, who serves as a court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children, advises high school students and their families on college admissions, and enjoys writing in her spare time.  Although not actively practicing law at this time, she credits her children with finding ways on a daily basis to help keep her litigation skills sharp.  She can be reached on Twitter (@cdbachy)  or Facebook (Christine DiBacco Bachman) 

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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