By Robert Strauss | Ella was 11 years old when she joined the Woodcrest Pool diving team. Her younger sister, Sylvia, had come home and told her how much fun it was, so Ella thought she would give it a try.
Problem was, Ella had inherited all the aqua-phobic genes in the Strauss family pool. Now, it is true that we have a Shore house. But I go in the water about twice a year, which is twice more than my father would have. My mother could do the sidestroke—for maybe half the length of the pool. Accordingly, it had taken Ella three summers’ worth of lessons to get one of those bands permitting entry into the deep end.
So when the first diving meet of the summer arrived, we winced. The contest was being held at the pool where most of her school friends swam. Most of them seemed to have been born with fins.
Ella bore through her repertoire: front jump, back jump, something easy, something even easier. She came in, I think, 26th.
That’s out of 26.
As her scoresheet drooped in her hands and her lower lip curled beneath her bottom braces, I launched into the best Knute Rockne pep talk I could muster. She gave it her all. She made every dive count. She left it all in the pool.
And besides, there was a whole afternoon left at a pool fancier than ours! I directed her toward her friends. She dragged herself over—and they all started screaming, “El-la! El-la! El-la!” as she reluctantly looked back at me with a start of a smile.
There are no losers in the world of sports in the Strauss house. Earlier this year, a Yale law professor, Amy Chua, created a sensation with her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which outlined how she had brought up her now-teenaged daughters the “Chinese” way. Essentially, her regime was a modification of tough love: hours of strict musical instrument practice; no grades lower than an A tolerated; no play dates or sleepovers; perfection at every turn.
The Tiger Mom has her way. I have mine: the Pussycat Dad.
I will admit that, as a sports-obsessed guy reared in the Golden Era of Jockdom, I went into the delivery room both times expecting boys. When I was a kid, girls didn’t play sports, at least not the way the way they do today.
In New Jersey, where I grew up, girls still played six-on-six basketball into the early 1970s. Inexplicably draped in ugly jumper-dresses, two girls played just defense, two stayed on offense, and only the last two could play both—presumably because most girls wouldn’t have the stamina, heaven forbid, to run a whole court. Girls played lacrosse with barely any checking, and softball with yet another extra girl to field the super-squishy ball.
And there was a stigma that went along with playing sports to begin with—save for maybe gymnastics or tennis or swimming, which were suitably non-contact and featured sexy uniforms.
But my girls, like many of their friends, took to sports right off. They loved bashing into other kids on the soccer field and jacking up three-pointers on the basketball court. Sports became the things girls did, not what they avoided.
I quickly grew to love watching it all. Diving aside, Ella and Sylvia turned out to be solid—if not stars—at almost everything they tried. And they tried everything from crew to lacrosse to baseball to cross country. Ella, who barely crossed the five-foot mark in height, was probably the smallest varsity basketball player in the state for two years running.
Sylvia, we kidded, decided she would play goalie in soccer and lacrosse, and be the three-point shooter in basketball, because they required the least amount of actual running.
I, for my part, decided I would be there as much as I could. I discovered that some of my fellow sports parents needed some perspective. Sure, I wanted my kids to have great games, but I wonder what Amy Chua would have made of the time Sylvia played on one of those allegedly super-selective summer basketball teams. After a big tournament game, I put my arm around her to congratulate her for being the high scorer. Unfortunately, her point total was one, since the one of the vastly superior opponents had made the mistake of fouling her as she lofted up the last shot of the first half. She made one of two from the line, which cut the loss to 44-1. A Tiger Mom, presumably, would have lambasted her for missing the back-end free throw.
In another season, she was the goalie for a travel soccer team that scored all of one goal for the whole season. Still, I would come home to tell my wife the “good news” of a mere 2-0 loss.
We do live, though, in a sports-obsessed—not to mention -stressed—town. Last year, Haddonfield High won what would seem to be an impossible seven Group II state championships for mid-sized schools. A couple of years back, Ella was the coxswain, leading a lightweight eight boat to 12th place in the national championships. To a Tiger Mom, maybe this would have been cause for hacking up the boat with a meat cleaver. I was apoplectic with joy, for no previous Strauss could have come in 12th in the nation in anything, even if that nation were San Marino.
I can only hope my attitude made me a better parent overall, even if it’s a tough sell for those whose lives seem to be vindicated by their kids’ yardage gained or goals scored. Ella is now a freshman at Davidson College. Sylvia, at 16, is still on her sport-a-season pace through high school. Both have learned to be fit and flexible, both mentally and physically—mixing determination with, er, sloth. They do ab crunches while watching “Gossip Girl,” and take runs to justify a cheesesteak to come.
So I have to believe that while the daughters of Tiger Moms may scratch and claw and agonize to that all-important top rung, the Strauss girls have learned to laugh and stay sane in 12th and 26th place, winning something better than yet another trophy along the way.
Robert Strauss teaches writing in the University’s English department and is the author of Daddy’s Little Goalie, a memoir that came out in April.