Nice Try, Ryan

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This article was originally posted as an Opinion to the Roanoke Beacon, Jun 29, 2022.

When my family and I arrived in the USA in 1983, we bought a house in the borough of Mantua in Fairfax County, Virginia. Our older son René joined the Fairfax Police Youth Club soccer team. We were also frequent visitors in the “Mall” Museums, in particular, the Museum of Natural History.

We had not yet decided whether or not we would apply for US citizenship, but we were eager to learn the rules of American cultural and social life which seemed to be quite different from those in Europe.

One day, we were waiting outside the Museum of Natural History and our sons were enjoying themselves with a huge plastic dinosaur that stood in front of the main entrance and was designed to serve as a slide for children. Our boys were as unfamiliar with American social behavior, as were we. Coming from Germany, we were used to relatively rough and rude forms of behavior and the fact that they were tolerated by society.

To give you an idea what German social behavior could look like, imagine a bakery, full of customers. These customers are not forming a line. They all bunch up in an amorphous group with each customer trying his or her darn best to squeeze ahead of the other guy so as to be served first. Waiting in line is not a German tradition. Competing is.

I once watched a young man becoming frustrated in such a situation because an older woman who was keenly aware of the young man’s attempts to move in front of her even though he had arrived at the store later, would not let him get ahead of her. Finally, the young man put his right foot into the old woman’s empty shopping bag, making it impossible for her to move ahead. As she was pulling on the bag, the young man nimbly moved around and in front of her. Nobody said anything. Indeed, I saw several people nodding appreciatively, admiring the young man’s astute tactical move to advance himself to the old woman’s disadvantage.

In line with this type of behavior, our boys were constantly trying to get ahead of the other children, cutting in in front of them at the ladder, and we did not pay attention, since we considered this normal, albeit rough, child behavior. After all, wasn’t America the land of football, lacrosse, and ice hockey? And did not those cowboys in the Western movies constantly punch each other in the face for no good reason at all and then shake off the dust and have whisky together?

A mother, whose little boy had been pushed aside by our ruffians several times, finally intervened. Her boy’s name was Billy. She grabbed one of our sons by the collar, dragged him back as he was getting ready again to push Billy away from the ladder, and yelled at him: “I don’t know where you come from, but this is America and here you wait in line until it is your turn.” She screamed and pulled our son back by his shirt.

My wife saw it and apologized. “You are right.” She said. “Our sons need to learn better social behavior. But you have no right to jerk our children around and yell at them either. If you see something you do not approve of, you need to ask them who their parents are and then complain to us.” It was visible that Billy’s mother did not appreciate the enlightenment.

Later at home, we discussed the incident. The mother of the little boy had demanded more civil behavior from our children. In that she was right. But then she herself became infuriated. She yelled at our children and jerked them around by their shirts — obviously, not exactly civil behavior. In fact, her action was borderline illegal. A strange dichotomy: demanding more civility, this mother behaved unnecessarily uncivilized to protect her son.

On Sundays, we went to the Fairfax Police Youth Soccer Team’s games. The first game was eventless, so to speak. But the second game turned into an experience.

René played in the yellow team against a visiting blue team. The players were all 5-6 years old boys. It struck us as odd that the parents of these tiny ball kickers became extremely excited during the course of the game and particularly, when their little boy was kicking the ball. Then, a boy’s parents, aunts, and uncles would all jump up from the bleachers screaming and yelling hysterically to encourage their little player to kick the ball.

We noticed one little boy who kicked the ball often, because he was a fast runner and had his eyes fixed on the ball almost permanently. His name was Ryan. Unfortunately, Ryan had no clue what he was doing on the playing field. When he got the ball, he kicked it persistently into the wrong direction and ended up scoring three own goals. Each time he kicked the ball into his own team’s goal, his mother would shout: “Nice try Ryan! Nice try!”

After the third own goal by Ryan, I approached his mother low key. “Madam,” I asked, “Is there a reason why you keep telling your son that shooting an own goal is a ‘nice try’? Would it not make a lot more sense to explain to Ryan, how the soccer game goes and what the rules are? I mean – it seems to me that your son does not really understand what game he is in and that the general idea is to kick the ball into the goal of the opposing team, not into the goal of your own team.”

Ryan’s mother had no clearer idea of how soccer is played that her son. She resented my interference and my offer to give Ryan a brief tutorial about the soccer game and its rules.

“But! Should he not at least be made aware of the fact that what he does is patently wrong, against the rules of the game, and detrimental to his own team’s chances to win?”

“What? You want me to emotionally hurt his tender soul, break his spirit, destroy his enthusiasm, and disappoint him? What is important here is not who wins the game, but that Ryan feels good about himself,” she countered. I was shocked.

This mother was applauding her son’s total failure to play the soccer game right (i.e. by its rules). Given the absence of any criticism or corrective action from Ryan’s mother (or anybody else as for that matter), Ryan must have believed that what he did, i.e. kicking the ball persistently into his own team’s goal, was a great performance. His mother did not dare to confront Ryan’s tender ego with the fact that his performance as a soccer player sucked. She was rewarding him for his non-performance by recognizing it as a “nice try.” In fact, she was manipulating Ryan into the illusion that he was a great and successful young soccer player. She was bringing her son up in the false belief that failure is success and that all that counts is that he, Ryan, is happy in his false self-esteem, even if his team loses because of his inability to play soccer correctly.

This was in 1984. Ryan and Billy must now be about 38 years old. And there surely are many of them.

Billy’s mother was certainly overprotective and over reactive, as well. I would assume that Billy grew up in a highly protected and risk-averse general atmosphere. I wonder if Billy could have become a Navy Seal, a mountain climber or an inventor. My hunch is that Billy became a teacher.

Ryan’s mother would not let her son know when he failed to perform. He probably grew up with a consciousness that expects praise for little or no performance and with little awareness of the difference between effective and ineffective action. My hunch is that he works for some government agency where his performance is not measured and where his job is safe, regardless of whether he succeeds or fails.

Both types of child treatment were forebodings of what was to come: more ineffective, overbearing, and expensive government and a snowflake generation that needs safe rooms after being exposed to dissent and psychological treatment after a test or a mildly demanding performance.

Nice try. Thank you, Billy and Ryan.

Lord, help us.

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