Kenny Bodanis and Vikki Stark look at the dark side of the all-American kids’ pastime.
by Kenny Bodanis and Vikki Stark M.S.W.
Stanley Kubrick had no children, which makes the viciousness of his “Full Metal Jacket” drill sergeant even more impressive. I was certain he had drawn on his experience watching the behavior of little league parents ‘encouraging’ their children from the bleachers, but I guess not.
My children, ages 7 and 5, recently began participating in organized sports. The experience can be intimidating: the big field, the cleats, the uniform, the cheers. The journey also challenges a child as they showcase for the first time their skills – or lack thereof – in the areas of hand-eye coordination, awareness of their surroundings, and understanding of objectives. For most parents the games and practices are no more than another outing with their kids. Their role is that of taxi driver, popsicle pusher, cheerleader and comfort zone.
But, for every puff of encouragement the kids get, there is a magic dragon perched in the bleachers; snorting, breathing fire, demanding more, and punishing for less. These aggressive sports parents push and criticize, scream and chide, and shun tears as signs of weakness. These kids are barely into grade school, yet are suffering consequences at the hands of those they should trust most.
Vikki Stark is a family therapist, and helped me find some answers. Unfortunately, she says, the suffering forced onto the child by their aggressive parent probably does not begin and end on the playing field:
“What you know is…that child in his home is shamed into doing things. And that the (parent) uses shaming as a way of shaping behavior. There are those who are not good parents: who get frustrated; who are yelling at their own kids at home when they spill the milk; who don’t have patience. Those are going to become some of the parents in the stands. And maybe they feel like their life sucks, and their marriage is lousy and ‘Man, why can’t that stupid kid at least hit the ball!?’ It just becomes a compounding of a lot of negativity, and people do feel overwhelmed and anxious.”
The young athlete understands immediately when they have erred; they hear it from the coach, and they hear it from their teammates. And the whole scenario is playing out for them in public. When they are also the source of disappointment for their parents, their self-esteem slowly gets stripped away:
“Any kid would feel embarrassed. The fact that (the parent) was not able to empathize with the child, wasn’t able to understand what it feels like to be seven years-old and to be on the team …It’s endemic in sports because you’re in a team and teams are loaded in the first place because…there’s “in” crown and the one who’s a trailer-behind – the one’s who get picked last; the one’s that nobody wants to put up at bat. There’s a tremendous amount of hierarchy. If you think about what’s the purpose of this is: it’s not only for the kids to get outside and have fun, but it’s to build self-esteem and not to tear it down.”
This type of boorish attitude does not come from parents alone. Coaches are parents, too. They are volunteers who’s baggage is not restricted to those carrying supplies for the big game. They may have jobs with which they are frustrated, spouses with whom they are in conflict, or just maybe they’re just plain mean. Vikki suggests taking this person aside and discussing with them – away from the game – about their approch, and how it affects your child.
Things become dicier, though, when you’re married to the dragon; when the screams and swears of “Run!!” and “Touch the damn base!” and “Shoot the damn puck!” come from the person your swore to spend the rest of your life with. This is a delicate conundrum. You don’t want to create further tension which would translate into increased rage from the bleachers next Tuesday. But nor can you ignore your child’s emotional beating:
“I see this all the time; sometimes one parent will be belittling of the child and treating the child negatively, and then (the parents) become more polarized. The stricter that one gets, the more lenient the other one gets. One’s like: ‘Well, she gives him everything he wants, so someone’s got to be the man around the house.’ In a perfect world you’d want to say ‘Sweetheart can we talk about this? I know you really want the best for little Timmy…’ and then you open the conversation with a gentle start-up and say ‘…and I do too, and I really want him to learn to apply himself and work harder and achieve and everything. But I worry sometimes he feels bad about himself when you keep mentioning that you want him to run faster.”
A child encouraged and supported by their parents can accomplish much. When that encouragement is insulated with love and acceptance of the child as they are, the possibilities are boundless. However, those possibilities may not exist in center field or left wing alone, if on a sports field at all. A parent who builds self-esteem rather than destroys it will increase exponentially their child’s opportunities to become a shameless success. The stands at the game should be filled with moms and dads, not dragons and drill sergeants.
“I think the bottom line is that connection you have with your child, that you can work through that together. And if you’re watching the game, you can say to the kid: “Hey, if you’re ever feeling crummy out there on the field, you give me our secret signal and you look at me, and I’ll look at you, and I’ll know what you’re feeling.’ Then he doesn’t feel like he’s out there alone. Because in the final analysis, if you have a close connection with your child, you can be with them through everything.”
Photo—Baseball kids team from Shutterstock