Should Parents Stay Away from Children's Sports?

Umpires and refs are are abused by parents, coaches and spectators.

Posted May 30, 2019

I played in a basketball league as a teenager, in gyms with mostly empty seats. There were only a few spectators: other kids mainly. Only once in three seasons can I remember my parents or any of my teammates’ parents watching a game. The only adults regularly present were the coaches and a ref. We played to win, of course, but we played for ourselves. It was the game, the competition and the camaraderie that were important.

One time I wanted to bar a neighbor from trying out for the team. I just didn’t like him. No good reason other than a strong aversion I felt towards him. The team’s rules said that anyone who wanted to join the team had to be accepted. So I proposed we change the rule. Reacting strongly against my proposal, the coach lectured me on how rules can’t be applied retroactively and whether I liked him had nothing to do with him being added to the team.

That incident reminds me that some of the most important things I learned weren’t always in the classroom. It also illustrates that having a fair-minded adult to intervene can stave off the baser impulses of a kid. In this case: me.

Today the stands are filled with adults, cheering and jeering. They are cheerleaders and, more so, partisan critics, especially of refs and umpires. No questionable call gets past them, no bad coaching decision goes unremarked upon. Bad behavior by parents is rampant, so much so that it is blamed for the shortage of sports officials.  On Long Island, Newsday reports that “high school sports umpires, referees and officials are being targeted for verbal abuse as never before by parents, spectators and coaches.”

Adults acting badly at high school and Little League sports is a nation-wide problem. A survey by the National Association of Sports Officials reports that in 2017, more than 70% of new officials quit within three years because of verbal abuse. This is a trend that began years ago, long before the loss of civility was blamed on the current political climate. Blame can be more squarely placed on parents’ misplaced ideas regarding childrearing than it can on the poisoned political climate.

What is going on? Writer and observer of childhood education Alfie Kohn has one insight. “Some parents,” he writes, “intervene not so much because their children need them to do so but because the parents need the children to need them.” Advocating for children validates parents. An essential role of a parent is protection and encouragement. They think that cheerleading isn’t enough. They believe it is their duty to do everything to make sure their children win, even if it means abusing someone else.

This has led some to conclude that parents should be barred from games. But as Kohn further writes, “What’s at issue here isn’t the amount of protection or involvement—such that we could simply say, ‘Dial it back’—but the parent’s motive for offering it. The solution isn’t less parenting but better parenting.”

What would better parenting entail? Foremost would be an understanding of the importance of play. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, in his book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, notes that everywhere in the world children play. “One purpose is for children to ape adult behaviors and practice grown-up roles.” But there is also the kind of play that is “purely voluntary, intrinsically motivated, and eminently enjoyable.”

Unfortunately, what we see in kids’ sports is that both purposes of play are being undermined. Many high school level sports aren’t purely voluntary but pushed by adults or pressured by peers as something kids ought to do. Sports are played not for its intrinsic fun but because it is part of building a portfolio for college admissions. And for many players, it isn’t eminently enjoyable but is fun only if a game is won.

And what is the adult behavior that children are learning to ape? Two things: playing isn’t for the fun of it but for some other reward, and bullying is an acceptable road to winning.

As Prof. Christakis points out, play is a training grounds for ethics. Out of the childhood experience of interacting with other children, they can learn the importance of fairness, caring and cooperation—acts that are socially beneficial—or they can learn to cheat and be cruel.

Traditionally it was believed that children learned sportsmanship through games that are well supervised. That could still be true if only fairness, caring and cooperation once again became the value to which we aspire.