Parents Spoil the Play in Children’s Sports

My son’s baseball team had just lost their last game of the season–they were out of the tournament. We losing parents tried our best to look glum, while the winning parents attempted to hide their jealousy. By the time we arrived at our cars, the lucky losers were excitedly discussing vacations we could take, projects we could begin, and friends we could finally see. Baseball season was over! We were free!

“At least until soccer season,” one mom reminded us. “We’re playing football this year,” another added, rolling her eyes, and I couldn’t block an image of parents and children all suited up in matching football uniforms, complete with pads. As a veteran sports mom, I knew exactly why she had used the plural we.

When one child in the family plays a sport, it is indeed a family affair. I think maybe the team photos should include us parents, derrieres parked in lawn chairs, arms laden with water bottles, diaper bags, and Barbie carry-alls.

We want to be there for our kids, to take an interest in what’s important to them. This is what good parents do, right? Maybe. When I was young, kids rode their bikes or were dropped off for their games and practices. Only later would Mom or Dad ask how it went. My father was a coach, but I don’t remember being dragged along to my brother’s games. In fact, the kids on my dad’s teams would converge on our house to be driven to the games in our 12-seater station wagon. No parents required.

Sometimes I think that by being so involved in our kids’ sports, we dilute their experience. After all, it’s not their win, it’s our win. Do all the valuable lessons–losing, striking out, missing the winning shot–have the same impact when Mom and Dad are there to immediately say it’s OK?

Of course we need to make sure Michael is listening to the coach and the coach is listening to Michael, and to ensure that Lauren is getting off the bench but not being pushed too hard. And psycho sports parents are obviously a problem: the dad who screams at his son for every fumble, the mom who reacts to the 14-year-old umpire’s bad call as if it were a threat to world peace. We know they are wacko.

But then there are the rest of us, the good parents. Are we cramping our kids’ style? Maybe they just want to get together and play a game.

Did you ever walk into a room where kids are playing, say, a board game? They’re animated, excited, totally focused on what they’re doing. When you appear, they stiffen, grow quiet, and appear confused. An adult is watching, and suddenly the game and rules are changed–maybe even ruined. Now imagine 40 of us adults descending on a ball game. Do we really believe we make it more fun for our children?

I’m essentially a non-athlete; my only “sport” was cheerleading. I don’t remember my mother ever coming to my games, much less shouting from the stands “Good, honey, but smile more!” or “Doing great, but you were late on that last turn.” I think I would have told her to either shut up or stay home.

And don’t the siblings deserve a well-balanced, un-rushed dinner once in a while? To play in their own neighborhood, their own yard? What are they learning when life revolves around Lauren’s soccer games, and family harmony ranks a distant second?

Maybe we parents should be doing more constructive things: cutting the lawn, painting the dining room, volunteering, writing a book–in short, getting a life instead of just driving our children to theirs. Our time is important, too; we need to show our children that moms and dads can and need to do more than watch. Certainly, our involvement depends on our children’s ages and personalities. My 5-year-old T-ball player will surely not be so enthusiastic about my seeing his every hit when he is 15. My 8-year-old daughter, on the other hand, already seems relieved when we miss one of her soccer games. Somewhere there is a perfect balance between not caring at all and caring too much. As parents, we know that at some point we need to make it their game, their recital, their grades. If we share every element of their lives, we’re cheating them out of part of it.

We need to shut up. And sometimes–not always–we need to stay home. As hard as it is to risk missing her first home run, or not being there to comfort him after the missed foul shot, at some point we need to take ourselves out of their ball game. Because this is what good parents do.

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

From Troika (#21).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.