The Parents We Mean to Be

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The Morally Mature Sports Parent

Why parents act like idiots at their children's sporting events.

In resarching my book--and I spoke to parents from many parts of this country as well as from Canada and Australia--there was nothing easier than to find stories about parents who acted like idiots at children's sporting events. I heard about a mother who brings a stopwatch to games so that she can monitor exactly how many minutes her son plays relative to other players and who badgers the coach with this data if her son has been slighted; about two mothers of opposing teams smacking each other with their purses in the stands; about parents at hockey games who spit on opposing players in the rink. A report by the National Alliance for Youth Sports includes these heartwarming stories: two women assaulting and leaving unconscious a mother after a youth baseball game in Utah; a youth baseball coach in Wisconsin being arrested for wrestling an umpire to the ground; and over thirty adults brawling at the end of a soccer tournament for players under the age of fourteen in Los Angeles.

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These out of control parents are clearly troubling. Yet the problem is not simply "them." Despite our positive intentions, many of us as parents, if we are honest with ourselves, are not at our best at children's sports events. We yell out instructions to our kids during games, try to instruct coaches, lobby for our kids to have more playing time, or unknowingly put too much pressure on our children to perform. Some of us depend on children's sports to work out our own conflicts or as a primary source of meaning or for a mood boost. In the book Friday Night Lights (also a television show and film), which depicts a Texas town intoxicated with high school football, athletes prop up not only their parents- many community members' well-being rises and falls on the team's performance.

That's not to say that we as parents should fret or beat ourselves up when we have charged, intense feelings at our children's games. It's thrilling to see our children perform well on a public stage; it's understandably distressing when our children fail on that stage.

But why do we get so wrapped up in these events? And how can we as parents manage our intense feelings so we don't act destructively?

It can help a great deal if we can, first, reflect on why these events are so charged for us. Many of us are too wrapped up for the same reasons that we are caught up in our children's academic performance: our hopes that our children will compensate for our shortcomings, our belief that our children's performance signals our success or failure as parents, our status concerns and competitive feelings with other parents, the largely unconscious belief, written in our childhoods, that excelling is the only way to obtain recognition or the hope that sports will be a ticket for our kid to a good college.

But there are also particular reasons that sports are especially compelling to us as adults and can even become the center of our lives. For adults who experience their lives as monotonous, children's sports can provide a thick plot, a varied narrative that is far more compelling than that of college or professional sports because their own child is a central character. For other adults, the rhythms of winning and losing in sports--the cycles of disappointment and success--are simpler and ultimately more gratifying than the rhythms of conflict and uncertainty in their own lives. Adults with chronic job worries, for example, can pin their hopes instead on the uncertain but more predictable cycles of winning and losing in high school football games, can use these sporting events to regulate their moods--a tacit subject of Friday Night Lights.

Others of us are deeply invested in our children's sports because we see sports as a way of creating a deep bond with our children and as a test of whether our child is fundamentally like--or unlike--us. As the narrator observes in Tom Perrotta's acclaimed short story, "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face," "Like most men, I'd wanted a son who reminded me of myself as a kid, a boy who lived for sports, collected baseball cards, and hung pennants on his bedroom walls." The narrator's grief that his son is so different from him in this respect is so great that it is responsible in part for this father assaulting his son, an act of violence that rends him from his family. Finally, children's sports can stir up in us old childhood wounds and yank us back to old childhood battles-struggles with shyness and self-assertion, peer and sibling rivalries, difficulties with authority, painful experiences of unfairness and mistreatment.

It's useful for us as parents to have at least some understanding of these underlying psychological dynamics. But even if we aren't inclined to look inward, there are moments during children's sporting events when we are provided telltale signs of our over-investment, moments that should cause us to check ourselves. I remember being furious at a perfectly innocent eight-year-old child who kept striking out my son and his teammates. In Perrotta's short story, the narrator, who is the umpire of a Little League game, wants one team to mercilessly "taunt" the other team because the other team is coached by his neighbor, a bitter rival: "feelings you can't hide from yourself, even if you'd just as soon chop off your hand as admit them to anyone else." Sports consultant Greg Dale coaches parents to be alert to other classic signs of their over-investment, such as saying "we" won or lost the game, regularly occupying dinner conversations with talk about children's sports, and planning family vacations around these events.

There are, too, ways that we as parents can get important feedback from others about our level of intensity and behavior. Dale suggests that parents ask their spouse and children whether they find their behavior embarrassing. We can also get feedback from our children about whether they want us to attend a game, about what we might do at games that would be helpful and about when and how they want advice. (Most children don't want frequent advice and they especially don't want advice right before or after a game.)

And when we find ourselves over-invested, we might consider, Dale suggests, taking a break, skipping a few games. We might also ask ourselves whether we have a gratifying life outside of sports.

Finally, it can be helpful to talk to children about our own history with sports and to be honest with children about our feelings. We certainly do not need to share with children all of our neurotic hopes and conflicts about sports. But when we are visibly grim when our child performs poorly or loses a game, or when we find ourselves shrieking at a coach or referee, we should assure our children that this behavior is not a reflection of what we value at our most mature moments. Because we may signal our intensity to our children unconsciously and because children may misread our intentions, it can also help to articulate clearly what our best instincts tell us. As one parent, concerned about what she might be communicating unconsciously, said to her children, "This is what is important to me-never, never play sports for me or for your dad. If that's why you're doing it, stop."

In these ways sports can help us transfer our best moral qualities to our children.


Useful Resources:
Greg Dale, The Fulfilling Ride: A Parent's Guide to Helping Athletes Have a Successful Sport Experience (Durham, NC: Excellence in Performance, 2005).

Jeffrey Pratt Beedy and Tom Zierk, "Lessons from the Field: Taking a Proactive Approach to Developing Character Through Sports," CYD Journal 1, no. 3 (2000):

Richard Weissbourd is a family and child psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's School of Education and Kennedy School of Government, and the author of The Parents We Mean To Be, How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development.  To learn more, please visit www.richardweissbourd.com

Richard Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education.

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