One Saturday morning about five years ago, I took all my boys to the baseball field to sign my then-5-year-old firstborn up for spring baseball. While I struggled to decide what size hat and tiny baseball pants he would need so I could complete the forms, a few of the coaches who were pacing around the crowd approached me.
“Hey, how old is that guy?” one coach asked, pointing to my second son, Charlie. “Does he play?” I looked up at them over the head of my newborn, asleep on my chest in his Ergo. “Uh, he’s three,” I answered slowly and incredulously. “No, he doesn’t play… anything.” Except Star Wars, I added in my head. And superheroes.
“Wow,” said one of the coaches, nodding his head with approval. “Listen, which high school are you zoned for? I coach football over at the local school. Let me know if he’s heading my way.” I stared at him, smiled because I didn’t know how else to respond to such a request, and silently steered my children toward another corner of the fray, away from the crazy coaches who wanted to recruit my preschooler for high school football eleven years early.
Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.
My now-8-year-old Charlie has been asking for the same bedtime book every night lately: The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. Every night, I read it to him and his little brother — the boy who was once that baby in an Ergo — and they end my sentences for me.
All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand.
When he was four, we signed Charlie up for soccer. It seemed like a good beginner sport, and some of his preschool classmates were playing too. He was excited to wear the jersey and to have a team, and his coaches were excited because he was at least a head taller than anyone else on the field; he looked like an athlete. But every Saturday, we would trek out to the soccer fields, and Charlie would walk — not run — onto the field reluctantly. Instead of going for the ball, he would lag behind the pack. His coaches would yell, “Go after the ball! Get to the ball! Run, Charlie!” and he would instead search the sidelines for me and jog over to where I was sitting. “Is it snack time yet?” he would ask me with desperate hope in his eyes. His coaches’ shoulders sagged. He never even kicked the ball one time that season. He did, however, greatly enjoy the cupcake he received after the last game.
Sometimes, his mother, who was a cow, would worry about him.
At six, we thought we had found Charlie’s sport. My son loves to swim. His father swam in high school and college, and it seemed to make sense that our children might follow suit. We signed the boys up for the year-round swim team and we attended practices three days a week for months on end. But while the other kids learned their strokes carefully and whipped their arms through the water like curved swords, racing ambitiously toward the wall, my son had a tendency to… well, dip. And cruise. And dive to the bottom now and then, like a dolphin. His young, boyish coach’s voice would ring out across the pool lanes: “Hey Charlie, what’re you doing? Charlie? Hey Charlie, how about freestyle?” But Charlie rarely heard him, because he kept his head underwater. He was swimming to the beat of his own (slow, perhaps reggae?) drum.
But Ferdinand would shake his head. “I like it better here where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.”
Eventually, Charlie stopped swimming. For a while, he took karate twice a week. He tried flag football. Finally, this year, we decided he would take a cartooning class that he absolutely loves at the local art school every Saturday morning and just one hour of group tennis one time a week to give him a chance to get sunshine and exercise.
Charlie is a tall, broad child. He looks like a natural-born lineman or a burly water polo player in the making. He might make an excellent heavyweight rower one day, like his uncle once was. But at the moment, he wants nothing more than to spend his afternoons at home, playing in our backyard or drawing elaborate pictures of his own made-up characters and worlds or indulging in Minecraft with his brothers or friends. It takes some restraint, in this parenting environment and especially where we live, to have confidence in our decision let Charlie be who he is and not expect him to play a sport. At times, I still have small, fluttery waves of panic when I hear about his classmates and their travel teams, their game-winning catches, and their new personal best times. I wonder if Charlie is missing out, falling behind, or if I should be pushing him harder. Am I doing my job enough, I wonder?
His mother saw that [Ferdinand] was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.
But what we have learned and accepted, over time, is that Charlie is not — or not yet — interested in competitive sports. He is our Ferdinand the bull. He wants to draw. He wants to make up elaborate, imaginative games in his head and act them out in the yard. He wants to sit on the floor of the family room with his Lego minifigures and build his own creations — he prefers that to following the instructions to build sets. He wants to make funny faces for his baby sister and make her giggle and squeal. He doesn’t, however, want to go to a practice, or run plays, or do drills. I want him to be physically active, and I like that he is now acquiring a skill in a social sport like tennis that he can use for the rest of his life. I know, though, that no matter how much he resembles the dream of Pop Warner coaches everywhere, my son is just not that kid. That, we have decided, is just fine. There is a place in the world for the Ferdinands. He is quite the artist and quite the storyteller. I like him the way he is, and more importantly, he likes himself the way he is. He doesn’t think he needs to be an athlete. That's enough for me.
“This is my favorite part,” Charlie says with a smile as I turn the page in the dim light of his bedroom.
And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly.
He is very happy.