I’m old enough to know better but there are certain things which, as a parent, are sure to cause me a little twist of anxiety.
School sports day is one example. My wee man has not (yet) shown any aptitude for or interest in sports. I know he’s not the fastest or the strongest. He’s definitely not the most confident. And as sports day approaches, scenarios of disaster begin to gather in my mind like particles of dust in a dark corner.
What if all the noise and commotion overwhelms him? What if he gets upset because he’s not one of the best? What if the trauma makes him hate taking part in competitive games? What if? what if?
But while I’m wasting time worrying if he’s going to be ok, he’s too busy being happy to care. When I tentatively ask him about the races he keeps telling me the same thing, something they must have been taught in class.
‘It doesn’t matter where you finish daddy, as long as you have fun.’
The sun is strengthening and burning off the morning haze as we arrive at the school field. The smell of freshly cut grass intoxicates the senses. The painted white lines on the bumpy grass track are close to straight.
The children are led out by their teacher and I quickly spot my son, looking smaller in the crowd than he seemed when I had dropped him at the gates an hour earlier. Mummy and I are frantically waving until he sees us and jumps to his feet, giving us an enthusiastic little shake of his fist.
The races begin and I feel a little shot of anxiety. I keep asking my wife ‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ over and over until she’s forced to pretend she can’t hear me anymore. I worry that at the first sign of adversity I’ll invade the track like Derek Redmond’s father.
(For the uninitiated Derek Redmond was a 400m runner who collapsed after tearing his hamstring in the middle of a race at the Barcelona Olympics. Although he was in agonising pain the athlete climbed off the track and attempted to finish the race on one leg. His father, who was watching in the crowd, burst through security and onto the track, gathered his inconsolable son in his arms, and supported him all the way to the finish line while the crowd cheered. I dare any parent to watch the clip on YouTube without letting a little tear escape.)
The races get underway. My wee man is nowhere near the front of any of them. But he tries hard and he never stops smiling. He’s actually going along quite nicely in the shuttle sprint relay until he decides half-way through that it’s more fun to skip than to run. I’m expending loads of nervous energy shouting encouragement and every couple of minutes he looks over to give mummy or myself a shy wave or a thumbs up. At one point while the sound system is playing Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, I could swear he’s dancing. And he just keeps on smiling while the sun shines.
The headmaster reads out the names of all the little boys and girls who have won the races. My son is not among them but it doesn’t matter because he did it. And he loved it.
I wonder why I let myself get uptight about it. I suppose it’s because, as a parent, I know I’m sending my child off to run his own race, without me being able to help him. So much of what he’ll know from now on in life will be about competition, achieving results, trying to be the best. There will be plenty more races in his life and I’ll always worry.
As the event finishes and the parents begin to disperse I sneak over to the bench where my son is sitting patiently. I give him a quick cuddle and a fist-bump.
‘Well done buddy,’ I say, ‘you were brilliant’.
He’s still smiling as he responds.
‘Oh daddy, I told you, it doesn’t matter where you finish, as long as you have fun.’
Being a parent means being there to teach your child. But sometimes we can learn from them as well.