Pulitzer Prize Winner MacKinlay Cantor once wrote that perhaps loving one’s children too much was a form of severe conceit. That somehow by loving too much and living too vicariously through them, that we forget that we are merely stewards preparing them for life. In deriving too much happiness through them, we lose ourselves.
I had the great privilege of witnessing Joe Ehrmann’s “sermon” at NC high school the other evening. What I appreciated most about his life views was challenge to us as a community to consider how we are raising our young men and women. More importantly, how do we prepare them to be a part of a community – whether it be on a sports team, middle school or our town? As a parent, employer and coach, I was interested in how Mr Ehrmann defined success and what he did to reinforce it in his kids.
Ehrmann talked about the pain and dysfunction visited on many children who fall outside of the fringes of a very distinct social order that starts at an early age and is reinforced by society – – a society that celebrates strength, athleticism, conquest and financial prowess in men, and beauty, belonging and popularity in women. He related his own confusion as a young man with an absentee father. He shared how he relentlessly pursued his athletic career, suffocating his own sense of self and having no interest in anyone other than the validation that came from winning. As a 29 year old, All Pro NFL star, he lost his eighteen year old little brother to cancer, and had his epiphany. Perhaps there was more to life than conquest, self satisfaction, conflict, and finally an unceremonious death where the crowd pays homage and then turns its backs on the cold hole in the ground and melts away.
He began a journey that he travels to this day – as a reverend, a coach, a father, a friend, a citizen of his community and a man. He believes our society’s messaging to kids is all wrong. He believes a parent and a coach’s responsibility is to validate each kid and to use that precious self esteem to teach them how to be the best that they can be. A society defined by seeking to maximize the potential of every one of its citizens is a great and noble society indeed. On his football team he asks his kids, “ what is the coach’s responsibility ? “ “ To love us” is his kids response. “What’s your responsibility” asks the coaches. “ To love each other “, is the team’s response. He promotes compassion, community and self-less respect for everyone. He has been the subject of an HBO special and an award winning book.
Ehrmann believes boys and girls need to be taught that it is ok to express emotion and love. The penchant to hide one’s emotions, to dread embarrassment, to muscle through pain and to always wear your “game face” has trained a generation of young men to separate their heads and hearts and to perhaps miss the very essence of what it means to be a real man, a complete human capable of love and to be loved openly and unconditionally.
Ehrmann’s football teams sign contracts of conduct. They have ten minute lessons on a variety of social and racial issues before practice to sensitize his community of players about their obligations to themselves, to young women ( these are teenaged boys after
all ) and to their broader community. Sure, some parents feel like the coaches are overstepping their roles. As Ehrmann said, “ the Mom’s get it right away. It takes the dad’s a little longer , especially if they were brought up in the don’t cry, don’t back off, conquer everything “ culture of the great American Male.
As I think about my own experiences as a baseball coach and the audience of young, earnest boys that I lead each season with my friend Michael Kramer, I understand the opportunity we have to shape these young men and reinforce key messages. I realize when I coach and parent, I send my kids hundreds of little messages every day as I react to their actions and their accomplishments – – their grades, sports, achievements and popularity. Am I reinforcing the right values?
I consider my own ten year old that lives for sports, idolizes ands seeks to please his coaches and thrives on the chaos and testosterone of his band of brothers. I think of my teenaged daughter and her vulnerability to the messages the media and our society sends her about the way she should dress, interact with boys, spend her money and time. What will ultimately define her as a women ? Is femininity defined by being cool or compassionate ? Thin or thankful ?
Is the fact my eight year old son shows less interest in sports than he does in reading his Guinness Book of World Records ? Nope. It’s about me remembering what’s important and that if my kid finds a sense purpose beyond himself, he stands a better chance to navigates life’s currents and shoals and find ports of serenity and peace. It stands to reason that the opposite of self love is humility – not thinking less of yourself, just thinking of yourself less of the time. The true definition of love is to serve others unconditionally. Ask Mother Teresa.
The fact is, as a coach, parent, friend, neighbor, boss, brother, sister, husband or wife, we can change so many lives. As Clarence, the angel, says to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, “ you see George, you really did have a wonderful life”. It took Heaven to remind old George Bailey that his own self imposed sense of failure was defined by a misguided sense of what society judged him as and it had no real bearing on the fact that he was a great man, friend, father and civic leader. George Bailey was a “rich” man – – wealthy in character, integrity, compassion and selflessness. Joe Ehrmann reminded me that those are the attributes of a real man.
I looked around that auditorium and I saw my friends, neighbors and fellow coaches. I felt a sense of deep kinship to my community as I saw a village recognizing its need to come together to better raise every child. That’s Ehrmann’s law