After interviewing Pete Rose six years ago backstage at an Atlantic City casino, I introduced my childhood hero to my then 9-year-old son, Milo. An animated discussion between Milo and baseball’s hit king ensued. Milo, who remains obsessed with improving as a baseball player, asked the flawed iconoclast for some advice for the road.
“Be aggressive, be very aggressive, never be satisfied,” Rose said as he clasped Milo’s right hand in his meaty paw while staring my son in the eye.
The phrase Rose gifted my son is my boy’s mantra. Yes, Rose, who personified tenacity, is a gambling degenerate who will not be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his lifetime even though he has more hits and singles than any other ballplayer in history. Rose, by all accounts, wasn’t a very good husband or father.
However, as a parent, there are aspects of his life that I’ve appropriated. Rose’s drive to succeed should be applied to academics, sports and citizenship. It’s fascinating to examine the diminutive ballplayer who had just above-average power, speed and arm. But Rose, who was overlooked as a young athlete due to his lack of stature and tools, worked so hard that he was able to become the best ballplayer possible. According to Rose, his father, who helped mold him into a ballplayer, was brutally honest and critical.
It’s not uncommon to find elite athletes belatedly thanking their parents for pushing their progeny in a relentless manner. That’s often the case after players are selected during the NFL draft. It’s hardly atypical to hear a player utter something akin to “I used to hate what my father put me through, but he was right …”
Three years ago, I interviewed former New York Met and New York Yankee Al Leiter, who enjoyed an extraordinary career in MLB. I asked Leiter how three of his five brothers became professional baseball players of considerable renown.
“I would say it’s due to competitiveness, grit and a desire to (beat you up),” Leiter said. “That came from my father, who was a World War II Merchant Marine and post-war Army drill sergeant.”
Leiter, who is now a broadcaster for the MLB Network, detailed how his father would not spare feelings when discussing his children’s shortcomings.
“My dad was a true parent,” Leiter said. “He would tell you things you didn’t want to hear to make you better.”
That takes us to a novel concept, the positive impact of negative parenting. Unfortunately, most discouraging words today are perceived as negative. I’m using a bit of hyperbole when it comes to my “negative,” which is actually “candid.”
What I’ve discovered is that many parents today are having issues being frank with their children. A few years ago, one of Milo’s baseball teammates was having a rough day at shortstop. He committed error after error, and his father made a number of excuses for his son. The ball hit a rock or the sun was in his child’s eyes were the phrases that emanated from his father’s mouth.
If only the kid’s dad was honest with his son. A child doesn’t need to be yelled at or embarrassed if they make a mistake. Flubs are part of childhood and, well, adulthood. But we need to learn from our miscues so we don’t make them repeatedly. If we’re not corrected in school or on the field, where is the evolution?
Parents also are holding kids back by not pushing their progeny. We can take that in a literal sense. When Milo started first grade a dozen years ago, 70% of his classmates were a year older since many parents misinterpreted Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” Gladwell wrote that the most successful youth hockey players are born between January and March, since they are the oldest on the ice. However, many parents glossed over the most significant chapter of “Outliers,” which is about honing your skills for 10,000 hours.
A couple of the children who repeated kindergarten with Milo could read and write well, but their parents opted for retention. “I want to make it as challenging as possible for my son, and that’s why he’ll be in kindergarten again,” a mother explained to me.
While covering an MLB beat, I became friendly with Cole Hamels. The former Philadelphia Phillies ace and his wife, Heidi Strobel, who finished in fifth place on CBS’ “Survivor,” revealed how bummed they were that their first two children were born in October, thus missing the school cutoff.
The uber-competitive couple petitioned to have their children attend school a year early. It makes sense since Hamels and most elite athletes play up. As parents, we need to raise the bar, not lower it, which takes me to an annual field day my children participated in over the years at their school. The annual contest, dubbed “Color Day,” half blue, half red, hence the moniker, pits half the town against the other half. Each grade and kindergarten has an event.
Regarding the latter, an orange is placed halfway between the starting line and the finish. The last child to cross the line causes his team to lose the event. During a practice, a neighbor’s child dropped the orange and was teased by a schoolmate. The ridiculed kindergartner told his father, who regarded the taunts as bullying. The family decided to boycott the innocuous event in perpetuity.
However, the brood showed up at Color Day clad in brown and gray two years ago. When asked why they were clad in such a drab manner, the patriarch explained that they were present in silent protest. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
What are this family’s kids going to do after graduating college and they hit their first speed bump at work? What will they do when an assignment is blown and their supervisor reams them out? Run home to their mother and father?
Their actions remind me of the character Col. Jessup, who Jack Nicholson played in “A Few Good Men,’ when he screamed, “You can’t handle the truth!”
The positive impact of negative parenting is about addressing what kids failed to accomplish and how a child can turn it around. I firmly believe that children would rather hear the truth. It’s important for kids not to give up. So what if you drop an orange? Don’t let another child dictate what you can achieve. Kids are tougher than most people think. Raise the bar. Young children don’t know the difference.
Also, constructive criticism never hurt a child. As a parent, our job is to help guide our children into adulthood. It’s a delicate balance giving a child a push without going too far. There are plenty of examples of parents who stepped way over the line such as Marv Marinovich, who decided to manufacture his son into an NFL quarterback.
The former NFL lineman devised his plan while his son, Todd Marinovich, was in utero. It worked to a point. Marinovich was the star quarterback at his father’s alma mater, USC, and became an NFL quarterback. However, his professional success was short-lived as Marinovich, who dealt with severe deprivation as a child, indulged in drugs and is now a footnote in NFL history.
Andre Agassi’s father and Mike and Roy Jones Jr.’s dad also were out-of-control parents who abused their sons. Yes, their kids became legendary figures, but their path was utterly joyless.
How many fathers of athletes we never heard of engaged in the same behavior?
Pat Conroy’s exceptional novel, “The Great Santini,” was inspired by his demanding father, Don, who was never satisfied with his son. Again, it’s a balancing act. Don’t go too far, but also avoid caving in when it goes awry for your child. Also, each of your children are different. Milo needs boundaries and, at times, stern direction, while my son Eddie, 18, is best with a pat on the back and encouragement. My daughters Jillian, 21, and Jane, 11, are in the middle.
However, each of my children receives a healthy dose of honesty.
There isn’t a demand to be the tops in their class or the best athlete on the field. The expectation is to deliver their best effort so they can maximize their potential. Sometimes, I sound negative, but the same can be said for teachers and coaches.
What seems negative can help push a child into the right direction to accomplish what they’re capable of now and into adulthood. If a mother and father accentuate what their offspring has done wrong, perhaps that’s construed as a pair of negatives. If the child listens and corrects his behavior, then two negatives really can make a positive.
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