Dear Carolyn: My two sons, 13 and 9, love to play sports, with me and with each other, and I love that too. Despite being much younger and smaller, the 9-year-old routinely whips his big brother in driveway basketball, sprints past him in footraces and easily belts baseballs over the fence while his big brother strikes out. The 13-year-old gets upset and is starting to develop “take my ball and go home” tendencies, which I don’t want to encourage. Any thoughts on how I can work on this?
– Sports With Sons

A: The reality you can’t escape (well, one of them) is that your older son has to work on this himself. Nothing you say to buck him up will actually buck him up. He knows what he sees.
A loving parent’s job is around the edges. You can:
• Show confidence in your son that he’ll manage this cosmic gut-punch and sympathy that he has to. After he complains about a whupping, say: “Yeah, that can’t feel great. I know you’ll find your way past it, though.” If he comes back with, “How?!” then you get to ask, “Great question. What do you think?” Or if it’s just a sarcastic, “Gee, thanks,” then you get to shrug and say, “It doesn’t sound pretty, but, doesn’t it beat the alternatives?”
He has to answer these questions anyway, and by not attempting to answer for him, you imply that he can handle that responsibility. You also avoid the “You’re good at other things” trope, which is just eye-roll bait. And, you open the door to the idea of getting past it, versus stopping at getting upset.
• Serve as a source of perspective, overtly when asked and subtly at other times. Everyone – everyeveryeveryone – gets beaten by the proverbial 9-year-old. When it’s brother on brother, it feels like an insult versus an abstraction.
No doubt he still needs to find what his strengths are, and ways to find satisfaction in them, which brings us to ...
• Invest in the “You’re good at other things” trope anyway – just not in those words, or any words. Instead, take an interest in his interests and drive him to the practices/rehearsals/meetings they involve, and show the same joy in your body language when he accomplishes X as you show when your 9-year-old thumps one over the fence.
Are you at a point now, as (apparently) a sports-lover, where you can do that credibly? Probably not. The scholar gets grades, the artist gets admiration, the best mechanics or engineers are the ones whose work we can take for granted – but the performer or athlete entertains. Crowds and applause, that’s just how things break.
The face of a proud parent, though, looks the same no matter what, and praise for a child’s hard work and progress uses the same words no matter what. The effort to get involved – supportively, not ambitiously – confers the same confidence that you value who he is, no matter what.