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There is nothing like the hurt we feel when our children get hurt.

Is it any wonder we want to make the hurt go away as quickly as possible? Maybe that’s the reason for our “kiss it and make it better” instinct. This response is the time-honored cure for skinned knees and banged-up elbows.

But our little patients quickly grow up, and the complexity of their injuries grows right along with them. A bruised ego. A defeated spirit. A broken heart. Such hurts aren’t as easily kissed away. What’s a loving parent to do then? How can we help? Even after my kids have outgrown the days of boo-boos and Barney Band-Aids, they still look to me to make it all better.

Nursing is part of a parent’s job description, but just one of many hats we wear. Our various duties include coach, cheerleader, and—my least favorite of all—referee. This is why I’m so fascinated by high school football. There is a lot to be learned from the sidelines about the parenting game.

As in a family, every winning team depends on the support of many people with different but equally significant roles. The strategic leadership of coaches. The rowdy enthusiasm of cheerleaders and other spirit groups. The faithful presence of loyal fans. And yes, even the judgment of ruthlessly impartial referees! However, one job goes largely unnoticed . . . until a player gets hurt.

At that moment, the most important responsibility belongs to the athletic trainer. As the trainer heads toward the fallen man, everyone else stops whatever they are doing. The entire stadium holds its breath while the trainer evaluates the injury. How badly is our player hurt? Can he shake it off, and get back in the game? Does he need to ice it and sit out a quarter? Does the injury require more serious attention, like x-rays and hospitals? Only after the trainer completes this initial assessment does the player get to his feet—and everyone else gets back into action.

I find this “man down” protocol very effective. It keeps me from straying out of bounds. Mommy instincts are powerful and compelling—but not always rational. For instance, when someone else hurts my child, I’m instantly ready for battle. My first impulse is to call a foul, assign blame and hand out penalties. However, while such tactics might make me feel better, they are not necessarily in the best interests of my child—or anyone else, for that matter.

Nowadays, whenever one of my players gets hurt, I pause briefly. Taking off all other hats for the moment, I concentrate on my role as trainer—the first person needed on the scene after an injury. Before I do anything else, I help my child by giving their pain my full attention.

As trainers, we minister to our children’s wounds.

At that point, I choose my next hat from the following:

Coach. It is the coach’s responsibility to help make the call for the next play. Characterized by empowerment, coaches equip players for successful living with instruction, discipline and winning maneuvers. Coaches build on past experiences for future action, asking questions like, “What have you learned from this? What can you do differently next time?”

As coaches, we guide our children’s next steps.

Cheerleader. It is the cheerleader’s responsibility to boost morale with words of encouragement. Characterized by enthusiasm, cheerleaders, as the name suggests, lead through example, modeling positive attitude and a winning outlook in the face of setbacks. We root for our children with affirmations like, “You’re so good at _____. I’m really proud of you for _____!”

As cheerleaders, we lift our children’s spirits.

Referee. It is the referee’s responsibility to insure that the game is played fairly for everyone—not just our kid! Characterized by impartiality, referees monitor the action from all sides and maintain a wider perspective. As referees, we consider, “Let’s look at this from the other person’s side. Why do you think s/he may have acted like that?”

As referees, we broaden our children’s understanding.

Spectator. It is the spectator’s responsibility to show up. Characterized by dedication, such loyal fans represent community support and confidence. “We are here for you. We are counting on you. We have faith in you!”

The most passive of all the roles, spectator is particularly hard for devoted parents—especially when we play in helicopter mode, i.e., “hover and rescue.” However, often we can actually help our children more by resisting the urge to swoop in and fix things for them. With focused but restrained attention, as spectators we allow other people or circumstances to impact our children.

Ideally, our children grow up forming relationships with many others throughout life equally equipped to coach, cheer and referee. These include mentors and authority figures such as teachers, youth leaders and actual coaches, as well as friends, classmates and others. As hard as it is to keep silent, I am relieved to discover that I don’t have to have all the right words and answers. I also find that my children may listen to others even when they have tuned me out!

As spectators, we strengthen our children’s independence.

I am so thankful for this training in sports injury procedure. I now have a winning strategy to help get my injured offspring back into the game. As I consider which hat to wear, my attention is refocused from my own hurt back to my child’s. And that is where it belongs—it is their injury after all. I give up what I want to do in favor of who they need me to be. In the end, this simple but selfless act of putting my child’s pain ahead of my own is just a more potent version of that “make it better” kiss.

Love in action is pretty powerful medicine.

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