Let’s face it. It has probably happened to all of us in childhood. Frankly, it still occasionally happens in adulthood.

Recently, one of my kids came home sniffling and trying to keep a stiff upper lip. I took some prying, but eventually it came out that he was picked last for a pickup football game. Actually, it was worse than last. It was WAY worse than last. The other kids picked who got the ball first instead of taking my boy. Wow. That may be a new low.

My kid has won the gene pool in some areas, but athletic ability isn’t one of them. There were a lot of extenuating circumstances related to his bad lottery draw in pickup football, but at the end of the day, he was feeling some of that Good Old Rejection™ from his peers. So, what do you do as dad when your kid is picked last?

Empathy

At first, I felt all the rage that comes from reliving moments of your childhood through your kids. I got a little choked up. Then, pissed. Then, dad mode kicked in.

First, I gave him a hug and told him that I knew how he felt. I shared a story of when I got picked last. In fact, I considered regaling him further, but we would have been there all night (there were too many to count).

Then, I related that story to some of my past parenting decisions. I told him how when I was a kid, my parents were literally anti-physical activity. They weren’t like, “you don’t have to be good—we’ll still love you.” No, they were more like, “if you flunk PE, we honestly won’t care,” and “why waste your time playing outside? You could be using your brain!”

I explained that I felt that I was always picked last mainly because I didn’t even know the basics of the games that were being played. It wasn’t just that I was bad at them—I didn’t know the rules, either. Any team that picked me knew that at any moment, I might run the opposite direction or put the ball in the wrong net.

Next, I explained that as a parent, I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience the pain of being picked last. So, I had methodically signed him up for little league, flag football, basketball, skiing, went to the playground with him, and played catch to familiarize him with the ins and outs of each sport (or at least, what I understood of them.) I wanted him to at least routinely be picked in middle, but not last.

Then, we talked about the social aspects of being picked last. First, it could be that you suck at the sport. Second, even if you suck, a best friend will often save you the embarrassment and pick you before someone better.

We discussed if he had ever been the picker (he had) and how did he pick people on his team. Was he aware of the other kid picked last? Did he think about what they were feeling at the time?

Planning

The conversation moved on to the planning phase. This is always my favorite part. You can literally imagine everything from revenge to finding a new best friend. It doesn’t really matter. It’s all about moving beyond the feeling of sucking and getting to the feeling of empowerment. We came up with three strategies.

  1. Make better friendships with at least one or two people who regularly play
  2. Practice the sport together
  3. Accept that you are better in other things and that sometimes you will just get picked last

Action

Maybe I should push this one harder, but my feeling was this part doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he understands the dynamics of what was going on. It’s important that he feels empowered to make some different choices going forward. It’s essential that he controls what he can on his own. It’s key that he has hope, as well as acceptance of the past and the future. Finally, he must not feel like a victim.

I think being picked last as an essential part of childhood. Every kid should feel that pain. It’s through the occasional rejection that we learn self-awareness, our strengths, our weaknesses, and compassion for others.

Maybe if he learns, then when my kid has a choice between picking the kid who is worse than him or to receive the ball, he picks the kid, even if it might cost him the game.

I know in all of our childhood minds, that game is the Superbowl or the World Series. In reality, however, it’s just 10 kids learning how to win, how to lose, and how to treat other humans.

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