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Thin Line Between Foul & Fair Parenting

August 18, 2014, 11:00 AM
Thin Line Between Foul & Fair Parenting
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When a group of parents became unhappy with calls made in a Little League tournament, they cornered the offending referees, showered them with four-letter words, and hurled pizza scraps at them.

Of course, those refs got off easy compared to the coach who was slammed into a vehicle and had his life threatened by the father of one of his players. The reason? The coach had pulled the 11-year-old after only three innings so that everyone would get a chance to play.

One of the great American pastimes, Little League is supposed to be an atmosphere built on innocence, where kids can learn how to put on a rally cap and act out their big league dreams. They can have fun, be part of a team and enjoy a free sno-cone with their friends when the game is over.

Unfortunately, this environment is sometimes corrupted by parents—the very people who are expected to be role models.

So, how do sane, nurturing caregivers mutate into the worst versions of themselves when they get near a Little League field?

“The obvious answer is that people are trying to live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments,” says Michael Assel, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and staff psychologist in the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) – and Little League parent. “This can be an unconscious phenomenon.”

If, before a league title game, a parent emphatically points out that many players never even get the chance to win a championship, is he simply motivating his child to seize the moment or is he projecting the pain he felt as a fifth-grader when he came up short?

While other causes of the transformation can include feelings such as insecurity and jealousy, it can also originate from a basic, well-meaning desire: wanting what’s best for their kids.

For example, after a couple of seasons of recreational Little League, a child expresses an interest in playing in a more competitive setting. Hoping to give their son or daughter the best chance to succeed, parents begin shelling out for lessons, equipment and top-of-the-line apparel. When the child fails to show the drive and skill of Lance Berkman, frustration sets in.

“Parents want their kids to do well and take advantage of the opportunities that they provide,” explains Assel. “At some level, the investment becomes personal – ‘I am paying for it, I expect results.’ If a kid does not appear to be making the most of the opportunity, the parents are going to respond.”

These responses can vary from yelling, “Get your head in the game!” to threatening to take away special perks like sessions with a personal trainer. The aggravation can go beyond the child, directed at whomever the parent deems responsible for sabotaging his or her success. If the disappointment of unrealized expectations collides with a season’s worth of pent-up emotions, you have the perfect storm for trouble.

Next thing you know, an umpire is in a headlock over a questionable third strike.

‘Say it ain’t so!’

Most parents who react violently typically have a history of aggressive behavior, although this is not always the case. Anyone who gets too emotionally tied to the outcome of their children’s activities potentially can be susceptible to these types of outbursts.

Once the situation crosses the line, the damage is done. “Kids often retreat when things get out of hand,” says Assel. “You will find that interest in the game diminishes. A kid who has been excited about Little League for years now wants to sit at home and watch TV.”

Assel says that parents can avoid getting to this point by observing their child’s behavior. “Is he having fun? Does he want to give his coach a high-five? Is he excited to go to practice?” Physical symptoms such as vomiting before games can be a sign your kid is feeling too much pressure to succeed and perform.

So follow the lead of your child, and be as active as you can – without overstepping your bounds. Become familiar with the rules of the game. Support the coach and let him or her do the coaching. Attend meetings to ensure the league is promoting the right message.

Grand slam life lessons

Sports are a microcosm of life, presenting countless teachable moments that are far more important than any final score. Children old enough to play in organized games have the capacity to learn about teamwork, authority and sportsmanship, but it’s up to the adults to drive home these values. If a child throws a bat or slams a helmet, he needs to understand those actions are not acceptable. “Good habits learned early will continue as kids age,” notes Assel.

Having your children play Little League can be a special time for everyone involved. It won’t be long until their attention turns from goals and grounders to cars and... gasp... the opposite sex. So help them have the most positive experience possible, and never forget how they can benefit in the long run.

“I recognize there is an incredibly slim chance that my child will become a professional athlete,” says Assel. “However, I know there is almost a 100 percent chance that she is going to be working in an organization that often parallels some of the teams she’s been on. There will be stars, and there will be people who shouldn’t be there. There will be cliques, there will be disagreements, and she needs to practice those interpersonal and motivational skills that allow her to become a productive adult who can work effectively with a range of people while striving toward a common goal.”

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