The Unfortunate Death of “Sandbox Bobby”…John Page Burton

I grew up in a small town where just about everyone eventually ended up with a nickname. My personal moniker was “Burtbutt”. Forty years later I can still recall many of the nicknames. There was HoHo, (aptly named for his love of Hostess products) Punky, Scooter, Chico, Blackey (the only African American kid in our town) Porkchop and finally Sandbox Bobby. Over time, I have lost track of all of these colorful characters with the exception of one, Sandbox Bobby.

Sandbox Bobby died when he was nineteen years old. The coroner determined his cause of death was alcohol poisoning. Today, from my perspective as a peak performance coach, I believe that his death was a bi-product of his mothers insatiable need to protect him from failure. Shortly after Bobby graduated from high school, he found a job, bought his first car, moved into his own apartment and immediately began making up for all the things he had failed to participate in as a young adult. Less than a year later he was gone.

The story of Sandbox Bobby dramatizes a dilemma that faces parents everywhere. How do we find and maintain a healthy balance between keeping our children safe and still allowing them to navigate their way through normal, albeit often painful life experiences? Bobby’s mother chose to relive her own childhood drama by projecting her fears onto her son.  During high school, Bobby’s mom drove him to and from school, enforced an “in by dark” curfew, didn’t allow him to attend dances, go to parties or even have a girlfriend. She made his bed, did his laundry, cooked his meals, packed his lunch and discouraged him from securing after school employment. Granted, this is an extreme example, yet many parents are doing a similiar injustice to their children by always playing the role of the “great protector”. KIDS NEED TO HAVE THE FREEDOM TO FAIL & EXPERIENCE DISCOMFORT!!!


Many of us relive our past trauma by projecting our hurts, fears and concerns onto our children. I recently engaged in a conversation with a client who shared that she was not willing to put her daughter through the same “name calling and bullying” that she had endured as a child. Her daughter, on one occasion, had complained that a classmate had called her a name. Because of this one incident and much to the dismay and objections of her husband, she made a decision to “home school” her children. She has admitted that she isn’t qualified to teach anything more than the most basic academic subjects however, in her mind “it is better than the alternative”. Her life changing decision is a direct result of her perception that her daughter will continue to be made fun of by her classmates in the same manner she had been. By “saving her daughter” she is actually crippling her daughter.

Another client is a single mom who up until recently was engaged in a power struggle with her 14 year old son. Her son loves football and wanted to try out for his high school team. My client had determined that it was “simply too dangerous” for him to be playing football. She sited her concern about “concussions” as the main reason. I pressed her further and finally was able to get to the root of her concern.  She admitted that because he is small for his age she was concerned that he would be “crushed” when he didn’t make the team. I had an opportunity to speak with her son and brought up the possibility that he might not make the team. “If that’s the case, I will try out for the golf team, I actually like golf better than football anyway but she should at least let me try out”. Mom later admitted that she had been “crushed” when she had been cut from her high school cheerleading squad and later the debate team. She carried this feeling of rejection for years and simply did not want her son to experience those same feelings. *It can be noted that as of this writing her son not only made the team but may have a chance to get significant playing time as a freshman.

In both of these cases the parent is projecting their fears onto the child. It is important that we look back on our childhood objectively and be willing to release our past fears and insecurities. We must acknowledge that kids can be cruel, accept that failure is a part of our children’s growth process and understand that sheltering our kids from the natural flow of life may produce significant long term consequences.

Some thoughts on finding and maintaining a healthy balance…

*Create an authentic environment where your children can communicate their true feelings. When our children feel comfortable communicating with us from an authentic place, they are more likely to open up to us in times of confusion, adversity and even despair.

*Make a clear distinction between criticism and concern. When we have a concern it is wise to address it right away however, we must do so in a manner that doesn’t make us right and our children wrong. It is up to us to provide reasonable boundaries for our children without extinguishing their spirit.

*Spend quality time together. I believe that the family that plays together stays together. Engaging in healthy, outdoor activities provides us with an opportunity to bond and get to know each other on a deeper level.

*Encourage our kids to think outside of the box. We must challenge our children to look for solutions rather than dwell on problems. Remember, we are grooming the next generation for success not co-dependency.

*Encourage our kids to take risks and teach them that failure is an integral part of the success process. Protecting our kids from “potential” failure is not preparing them for the real world. When our children fail it is our job to let them know that we are proud of them for their willingness to take risks and for getting out of their comfort zone. As adults, how we react when our children experience failure will leave an indelible impression on them. Make sure it is empowering!

In short, Sandbox Bobby did what most of us would do if we had spent a lifetime on the outside looking in. Bobby made a conscious decision to make up for some lost time. At the time of his unfortunate death, Bobby was socially stunted, curious, easily influenced and he took everything to the extreme. I believe that if Bobby’s mother had been equipped with the information I have shared with you, Bobby would have been able to leave the sandbox at the appropriate time and never look back. God had other plans for Bobby. My hope is that by hearing his story another life may be saved.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback.

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