Second Thought: Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Leave Those Kids Alone

Neurotic parents should get tossed from the game.


A few weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey was doing a show on the subject of over-parenting. Basically, it focused on moms and dads pushing their children too hard, especially in the area of sports. In some ways it was the usual Oprah fare: Over-active dads getting leered at and symbolically castrated, while the over-active women have their hands held and get lectured a bit.

But then Oprah brought out this Texas mother who was pushing her 10-year-old daughter Sarah so hard in cheerleading that you were wondering what might happen to this kid. The mother would make this little girl miss school quite often to go to cheerleader practices, and every time they filmed this kid sitting in the back seat of the family SUV, she looked depressed and tired. The mom would scream as her daughter screwed up in practice, and then whine and throw tantrums in front of her daughter. Her explanation? She was only acting this way to make her daughter a better person. I kept thinking of this innocent little girl, on trial 10 years from now for beating her mother to a pulp with a baseball bat and claiming the psychological abuse in her childhood caused it all.

Something has happened in recent years to kids and sports: Many parents, it seems, have become the focal point of their kidsí sporting activities. Former Texas Ranger pitcher Ken Hill recently went berserk and reportedly attacked the other teamís coaches after a Little League game. Hill was coaching his 10-year-old sonís team in Southlake and went nuts because he thought the other team was running up the score.

In April, Canton, Texas, coach Gary Joe Kinne was critically wounded when the father of one of his players shot him because Dad didnít think his kid was playing enough. In May, a Connecticut girlsí softball coach was beaten with an aluminum bat by an angry playerís parent. And unfortunately, these are just a few examples of many. When did parents get so involved in their kidsí lives as to make Little League games and 10-year-old cheerleaders the source of so much ego gratification and even violence?

I have some theories. Families now have fewer children: In 1960, the average number of children per family was 2.33; today itís 1.87. That may not seem like a big difference, but families with one or two kids are now the norm. There were six kids in our family in the í60s and í70s, and my father and mother didnít go to a lot of our games. They had other things to do (a lot of other kids to deal with, not to mention their need to get away from all of us). So we rode our bikes to games by ourselves, and I donít remember many other parents in the stands watching us. Quite frankly, we kids preferred it that way.

Then thereís the feeling among some parents that their kids are so delicate that they need lots of adult protection. This may be coming from the fact that first-time parents, on average, are older now and want to oversee everything, believing that this is their last chance. Peter N. Stearns, a social historian at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, says that ďin the last few decades the belief [has become] popular that children are exceptionally fragile creatures and we should treat them that way.Ē

Parents need to figure out how to leave their kids alone more ó not abandoning them and letting them sit at home and play video games and listen to emo music and do bong hits ó but at least letting them succeed or fail in sports all by themselves. Part of the youth sports experience is learning on your own about lifeís game of success and failure. Kids who canít hit a baseball are still OK kids. They move on to other things that are more important. But the main point is that kidsí sports is about having fun. Itís not about parents pushing their kids and living vicariously through them.

My 15-year-old daughter plays soccer and volleyball for her high school. Iíve seen her play a half-dozen times. Itís not that Iím not interested in her ó we talk about games all the time, afterward ó but Iíve just gotten so tired of going to games and seeing the parents lose their mind over this stuff. Itís just kids, folks. Itís just games.

My daughter plays these sports because she enjoys them, and she has told me that she thinks it is quite odd that her teammatesí parents show up as if they have nothing better to do. Her attitude is that if parents care so much about their kids, why donít they lose their minds as much during science fairs?

Part of good parenting is to find ways for your kids to kill time in a nice format. Sports does that, especially in the summer. But if the parents are gazing down on it all with such seriousness, it takes away what sports is all about. Itís about your kids hanging out with their friends, figuring out how they fit in, and more importantly, getting away from their parents for a few hours.

Nothing wrong with your kids being out on their own. The issue now is not about the kids, because kids donít really change that much. Itís about their parents.

Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance journalist.

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