05/01/2012 09:23 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Parenting is Not a Spectator Sport

About four years ago, my now 16-year old stepson started playing lacrosse. Before that, the only thing I knew about the game is that a shirtless Daniel Day Lewis played it in "Last of the Mohicans." In case you're wondering, high school lacrosse is not at all the same thing. It involves more expensive equipment, a lot of smelly socks and carpooling. There are no movie stars.

I miss the movie stars.

Still, I enjoy my time on the sidelines, even though my younger son's requests for snacks and attempts to make a break for the field mean that I've never watched an entire game uninterrupted. Four seasons in, and I can finally identify my kid amidst the sea of blue and white helmets and jerseys. I have also successfully avoided getting hit in the face with a ball, which, believe it or not, is not the case for all of the other parents.

My preschooler has also been able to stay out of harm's way, despite trying to be close enough to the action so his brother can hear him shout "Go Blue!" This is sweet, but dangerous when six-foot tall teenage boys are barreling down the sideline chasing a small white ball that is being thrown faster than I drive my car.

When I'm not corralling my youngest, I huddle with the other parents. We talk about who's playing well and who's bringing Gatorade to the next game.

I have evolved from someone who didn't know where the lacrosse field was to a woman with a favorite spot on the bleachers. I still don't know all the nuances of the game, but I have a sense of what everyone's supposed to be doing. I know that the defenders rarely stray past midfield and that attackers get all the glory, scoring goals with near balletic elegance. Even with that knowledge, the first time I could really follow a game was last week, and as I was leaving the field, it struck me that what the kids are doing on the field isn't that different from what the adults are doing off of it.

Parenting is sports without the pads.

You have to know your position. As a parent, you're a benchwarmer. Your job is to cheer, pass around water and snacks, and provide short bursts of encouragement and a different perspective when things get really ugly. You are not, under any circumstances, to try to play your kid's position. You cannot fix their problems, pick them up every time they fall or micromanage their lives (no matter how much better everything would be if they would do it your way). During a game, if you stray from your assigned role, you're off-sides. In life, you're a meddling helicopter parent.

You should also have a look at the rulebook. You can try to fake it, but it won't end well. Also, the rules change. When I was a kid we didn't have cell phones, texting, the Internet or Facebook. I played tennis with wooden rackets. No matter how shocking it may seem, we are dinosaurs. Trying to raise kids today by pretending nothing has shifted is a recipe for disaster. Our kids may not be that different than we were, but the arena is.

No matter how difficult it may seem, trust the referees.
They're there for a reason, even if watching them run around like out-of-shape zebras makes you uncomfortable. Same goes for teachers, coaches, pediatricians, and guidance counselors. Their jobs are to help you do yours by giving you advice and information. Sometimes, they'll say things you don't like. Doesn't hurt to listen. If you're not sure why that small cut on your son's knee isn't healing and has turned into a oozing gaping sore, I recommend making an appointment with your doctor before one of your kid's teachers asks if you are legally blind because your child clearly has MRSA and could you please take them to the doctor before he loses his leg. Not that that happened to me. Twice.

Attitude is everything. Even if you've been benched, you have to put on a good face, suck it up and cheer for the team. If your kid wants some space, give it to them, no matter how crappy it feels. You won't be in the doghouse forever, and sometimes a break is what everyone needs. Just do it.

Parenting is not a spectator sport. You have to get involved. Be invested enough that you feel the pit in your stomach as the final minutes wind down on the clock and your team is behind. It is ok to embarrass your kid (occasionally) or your spouse (more frequently). My husband recently asked me to tone it down at a game because he thinks shouting "Hit him! Hit him!" is unseemly. If they aren't supposed to hit each other, what is the point of the helmet and all those pads?

Time outs are to be used strategically. Kids screw up both on and off the field. They might make an illegal hit (especially if some crazy woman is on the sidelines encouraging all manner of aggression), fall behind, or miss the shot. They don't do their chores, talk back, and run afoul of the house rules. Time outs are useful, so is the penalty box. Grounding works too. But as every good coach knows, you have to pick your battles. Discipline for discipline's sake isn't going to get you very far. Nor is over-reacting. Sometimes a hit is a hit and you walk away.

Don't forget to eat. Or sleep. Or have fun.

Believe. Even on cold, rainy days and during losing seasons, you still have to believe that your team will pull out the unexpected victory or that your kid will overcome the latest obstacle and be better for it. When you feel your most inadequate, believe in yourself. If you can't do that, watch a great sports movie. I'm partial to baseball flicks myself -- "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham," "Moneyball," "The Rookie"-- but if you find inspiration elsewhere, check out "Miracle," "Chariots of Fire," or "Hoosiers." Tales of underdogs or insane dreamers may help you get your mojo back.

Finally, a bruise isn't the end of the world. My stepson regularly has an array of colorful contusions. Somehow, a lacrosse ball can actually find the one part of his body that isn't covered in pads. I offer Advil and ice packs, and I wrap a mean Ace bandage. But I don't sweat the small stuff. I view bruises, scrapes and the occasional sprain as badges of honor. If you're playing hard, you'll get injured. Life is the same way. So whether your kid comes home with a broken finger or a broken heart, remember, getting hurt means you're in the game, and that's a good thing.