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Teaching Kids to Listen to Their Guts Means We Have to Listen to Ours

Have you ever had the feeling you’re not where you should be, and it’s time to change direction?

Your stomach tightens, you feel uncomfortable and your instinct kicks in, but it doesn’t give you precise, easy answers.

All you know is where you are is causing friction in your soul.

This inner voice is something I whole-heartedly believe in, but it’s a bit of a murky concept to teach to my children. It sounds hokey if I flippantly say, “Listen to your gut!” It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed lands harder when they actually experience it for themselves.

But it’s still a tricky lesson to navigate.

I mean, I am telling them to listen to their guts and be true to who they are, and to back away if something doesn’t feel right. How do we balance this advice with the equally well-intentioned guidance to have perseverance and grit to see hard things through? To stick with it and be victorious?

Like nearly everything in life, there is no right or wrong answer, but I find myself wanting to put more weight on the side of my brain that reminds me everyone--even children--are armed with an inner voice that is their compass, and tuning into that is even more important than staying with something that feels wrong, which is different from something that feels only difficult.

My son is 10 years old, and he begged me for two years to play tackle football.

I refused.

I know this child.

This child is not aggressive or competitive. He likes to cook and care for animals, so I had no idea where this desire to play tackle football was coming from.

After his asking one too many times, I finally agreed. I realized the worst thing that could happen would be he would dislike it, and he would at least know after doing it.

At first he really liked it.

And then the tackling drills began.

He cowered and flinched and was taken to the ground.

Over. And over. And over.

The kids who had been playing football for years took this as a challenge to initiate my son, so they came after him more. The coaches yelled at the team that if anyone flinches or does not face a tackle, they’ll do it again until they can take it.

I get it. They were trying to get the boys to not be afraid because being afraid would be the thing that would cause even more injuries.

But there was a lot of emphasis on manhood and not “playing like girls” and the practices started to feel like something I had not anticipated or appreciated. I sat back and let my son figure out if this felt right to him. (What I really wanted to do was storm the field and show them just how scrappy and strong a girl can be.)

My eyes widened as I pretended to read a book but in reality was staring at the same sentence, nervously overhearing the heated practices that rarely included any fun or positivity.

He kept running to me on the sidelines with tears in his eyes, telling me it hurt so bad. He got the wind knocked out of him, got a helmet to the stomach and again to the shoulder and his hands and arms stomped on by cleats.

I am so ashamed to admit this, but my first emotion was anger. I was angry that he hadn’t listened to me. I knew he would not like the aggressive tackles and daily injuries.

After the wave of anger, my instinct was to tell him, “Let’s get out of here if you’re in pain, and this doesn’t feel right.” but I looked down at my book and told him to get back on the field and keep at it.

My own gut was telling me to let him stop, but I doubted the voice, telling myself I was being too sensitive. I didn’t want to make a knee-jerk-over-reactive-mama-bear decision, so I sat and breathed, listening to my gut and then ignoring my gut.

He tried, and again, he flinched and cowered practice after practice, fearing the pain and cut-throat environment.

He ran to me on the sidelines again during a water break, and my protective brain could not keep up the bad-cop persona anymore. He needed my help, and acting cold and angry with him was no way to show him I had his back.

He was looking to me to get him out of a situation where he felt completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t continue to say no.

I calmly folded my camping chair, picked up the book I was pretending to read, and told him, “Let’s get you out of here.” I went up to the coach and told him my son wasn’t feeling great, and we were leaving early.

We got to the car and my son burst into tears. He had been holding them in out of fear of being made fun of by others on the team.

He said, “I don’t know why I didn’t listen to you when you told me I wouldn’t like football. I can’t do this anymore.”

I exhaled, “I know, sweet birdie. It’s okay. But, hey, can I please record you saying that again?”

He smiled.

We had a long conversation about how he didn’t enjoy football at all. He didn’t like that coaches kept yelling at them to not play like girls and to “man up.” He didn’t like that it was no longer fun and nothing but getting yelled and cussed at.

He said it didn’t feel right.

I quietly said, “I know. I hated every second of it, and it was torture watching every practice. I did it because you wanted to try it, and I didn’t want to shield you from things you’re curious about.”

I told him that he could quit, because to me, what helps a boy be a man doesn’t have to be just physical challenges like tackling others. Being an aggressive boy who is in training to be a good man means you have to have good communication skills and a sense of accountability. I told him he could quit only if he would go to the coach in person and tell him face to face.

He rolled his eyes and told me that would be awkward. I said, “Well, let’s go get you back on that field then if you can’t do that.”

He met with the coach the next day and told him football was just not for him.

I told my son he learned something really powerful and that’s the gift of listening to his gut. We talked about how he could feel he wasn’t in the right place. That’s not to say he was any better than anyone there, but everyone else was having fun and loving tackling each other. He was, however, miserable.

We talked about how it’s a fine line between giving up too soon before you give something a chance and staying too long even when you know it doesn’t feel right.

I told him, “I know this was a hard experience, but I’m grateful I let you play. This way you now know what it feels like, and you won’t wonder and resent me for not letting you. I’m grateful you got to hear your gut tell you you weren’t where you wanted to be. This is all good stuff and worth the last month of practice and injuries.”

I pulled back the curtain and admitted to him as an adult I have made mistakes by ignoring this inner voice. I’ve stayed in relationships in the past where I could feel every day it wasn’t right, but I told myself to stop being sensitive and just deal with it, even when I was miserable.

This lesson of honoring yourself and facing disappointment when things don’t go as we envisioned is one of the biggest obstacles in life. I told him that’s the hard truth, but how great that he got to experience it and feel it all, so he could understand it next time he faces it.

I can’t lie to you and pretend I wasn’t torn. I wasn’t sure if letting him quit was right. I wanted to push him to a victorious place where he faced something difficult and gained confidence by conquering it. I had visions of him turning a corner and suddenly loving this sport that is so unlike anything else he is interested in.

Aside from wanting to push him, I was also selfishly embarrassed. I assumed the other parents would judge me and my son as weak. I am not proud of my parenting when I waste time on worrying what others think of me.

I stayed awake for a lot of the night, wondering if I had made the right decision, second-guessing my parenting skills. I wanted a guarantee that letting him quit was not setting the precedent of soft parenting that would lead to him one day living in my basement in his 40s as he lacks the backbone to face life, thanks to my coddling.

I can get dramatic and in my head when parenting dilemmas come to me. It’s never fun.

That morning, I had my answers. I knew I too had to listen to my gut. I knew letting him quit was the right answer this time. I can’t tell him to listen to his gut when in reality I doubt my own.

That’s the thing about listening to our guts--the message it sends to us gets muddled when we let ourselves get distracted by doubt.

It can’t be something we abuse to get out of having to face new situations or striving for more in life. We can’t confuse laziness and fear of hard work with raw instinct giving us information about how we’re wired.

As adults, most of us are probably going through life ignoring a voice within us that is trying to nudge us toward something else, right?

It’s hard work to listen to the voice, so we turn on Netflix or scroll social media, but the voice of who we are and what we’re meant to go after is always there. It’s mysterious, uncomfortable and fuzzy at times, but it gets louder when we don’t listen.

When we spend time owning our truths and firmly plant our feet in them instead of chasing after things or people that don’t feel right, we can live a life that is deeper.

These are all big concepts for anyone to wrangle, let alone a 10-year-old boy who prides himself on his repertoire of fart jokes.

But he got it.

He said he felt it and now knows what it means to give yourself permission to be who you are.

This took me about 30 years longer to learn than it did for him, and it’s still something I have to re-learn often.

I run myself into the ground with worry that I’m not guiding my kids in the right direction or giving them the tools they need to be healthy adults who have healthy relationships. But on that day as I saw my son struggle, cry, and then find relief in the permission to walk away and be himself, I realized I am doing something right.

I feel it in my gut.


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