For the first time ever, I had a guttural desire for my kid to win. This is an unusual feeling for me. I didn't like it. Normally, I want her to play well in that generic, parental way -- who, after all, doesn't enjoy seeing his or her child succeed? But, last weekend, on the sideline, I was really rooting -- silently -- for a victory. Not because it would make my daughter happy, not because my in-laws were watching, but because I had an intense dislike for the other team's parents. Whoa! That was embarrassing to even write. We are a world gone mad, myself included.
To set the stage, I am discussing a regular season soccer game played by ten-year old girls -- all of whom, on both teams, were adorable, athletic and hardworking. It should've been a fun little game to watch. The parents sat on the bleachers behind the benches -- their fans on one side, ours on the other.
Some of the parents, mostly mothers, of the opposing team spent the majority of the game shouting. There was encouragement and praise. But, intermixed with this appropriate type of cheering, were some very questionable comments. They berated their own children and repeatedly insinuated that our children were cheating. With the frequency and enthusiasm they tossed around "YOU BETTER GET HER!," I was beginning to think it was their team name. Admittedly, it was a physical match, and our girls spent a lot of time on the ground. My own daughter ended up in the ER. When fouls were called on the opposing team, the loud and vehement accusations were that the children were tripping on purpose. Even if they have a cheating nature, is a ten-year old capable of sacrificing her body for the good of the team?
We lost, but in my mind, so did they. My daughter and her friends came off the field not bemoaning the loss, but saying, "Wow! Those other parents are MEAN." Then, they promptly forgot about the game and moved onto more important things like playing with friends and weekend homework.
I, though, can't help but play it over in my mind. I left that game with an injured child and a terrible taste in my mouth about the residents of the opposing team's town. The behavior of a few destroyed my opinion of the total, which is silly, of course. I imagine if I met any of these men and women at a cocktail party, we would enjoy each other's company. I am sure they love their children as much as I love mine, sure they are courteous, responsible citizens most of the time. So, why do children's sports bring out the worst in people?
In what other venue, would it be appropriate to insult children, in front of their parents, and get away with it? What is it about the playing field that makes it OK to be openly hostile and angry toward a ten-year old? Even at professional sporting events, I find taunts, jeers and insults distasteful and egregious. At least the pros are fully grown, hopefully with their values already intact and they are getting paid. What does it teach our children that their recreational activities are important enough to turn parents cruel? What good are all the beautiful life lessons a team sport can teach, if they are negated by the hostility, criticism and poor sportsmanship of the children's most influential role models?
The psychology behind the shouting is complex. Why is athletic skill and winning so important to many parents? There are theories. It is a pathetic attempt to relive glory days. Unlike academic success, success in sports is there for everyone to see. If a child is great, by extension, the parent must be great. Parenting is a competition. Parents really -- and this one is scary -- believe their child has a chance to go pro.
There are deep-seated reasons for parental behavior on the sidelines, but they do not excuse the insanity of adults pushing children too hard, embarrassing their peers, and insulting the competition, who, by the way, are just kids playing a game. I implore parents who are reading this to think of the big picture. You can raise an athlete, who has learned, from your example, that they are valuable only as winners -- they will forever be disappointed. Or, you can raise a child who knows they are loved unconditionally, and who understands the real value of physical activity and teamwork -- this knowledge will serve them well.
If watching children play makes you stressed and hostile, ask yourself why. Even if you can't figure out the answer, take a deep breath and bite your tongue. We all have a responsibility to the next generation.
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