I know of parents who wept upon learning that their daughter had only gotten into Yale and not Harvard. In their grief they asked, “What did we do wrong?” I also know of a father who literally broke a (wooden) baseball bat in half over his knee in frustration when he couldn’t get his 8 year old son to effectively hit the ball. I know of another father who would play with his three year old son only if he held the bat correctly. The boy didn’t because as a three year-old he didn’t know how and was left crying as his father walked away. I saw a high school senior’s mom come on to the football field because of her displeasure with the way the referee was officiating the game. Countless times I have seen and heard soccer parents screaming instructions to their children and arguing calls or non-calls with officials. I saw a twelve year old’s father (who was also one of his coaches) grab him forcefully by the back of his neck and direct him out of the dugout so they could go and have a little talk. It was a one-way discussion and it was loud. The son had just struck out and had thrown his bat in frustration. Any reasonable parent would be concerned about bat throwing, as would any reasonable coach who would be concerned about the safety issue along with the display of poor sportsmanship. There is caring and concern and then there is over-involvement and enmeshment. These are clear examples of the latter.
Most of the individuals who coach in recreational sports are volunteers and by and large they do their best to give children a good experience in terms of skill development and social interaction. Not being professionally trained, they are bound to make mistakes, but if they have their egos in check, these coaches do much more good than harm. The question of course comes when a coach’s ego is not quite in check or when you disagree with his or her coaching or communication methods. When a coach crosses the line and has way more Bobby Knight in him then you feel comfortable having your child exposed to, your decision is pretty clear: Get you child out of harms way. However when a coach is not great, but falls short of being abusive most parents feel caught in a gray zone. What to do?
As parents, you always have a right to express a concern to a coach. How a coach responds will usually tell you if a reasonable accommodation can be found or if the coach simply can not be reached. When the later occurs the question is what to do. You can not raise your children in a bubble; they are going to have to learn to deal with difficult peers and authorities in the form of coaches, teachers and bosses. If the coach is a difficult, but not harmful person and you decide to have your child finish the season (if possible it is always better for a child to have a sense of closure, rather then learning that dropping out is an option in life), explain to your son and daughter the ways you wish their coach would act differently. Depending on your child’s age you can discuss with them how all people are different, with different abilities and limitations. You can tell them the importance of finishing what they started and that you intend to do you best to make sure they will have a different coach next season. By having this kind of conversation you will be demonstrating protectiveness for your child, affirming their ability to deal with a less than ideal situation, reinforcing the importance of following-through and providing assurance that things will be different in the future.
In addition to making sure others don’t cross the line with your children, there is also the question of maintaining your own boundaries with your child. When your son is resistant to practicing his violin or your daughter doesn’t hustle hard enough down to first base after hitting a ground ball you are presented with the challenge of how to respond. While it may be clear that neither child is performing to the best of their ability, it is not necessarily clear of why that is the case. These situations raise several questions: Does your child want to do this activity in the first place? Do they have fun when engaged in it? Are they confident in their ability to accomplish the task or are they playing out an irrational belief that they aren’t good enough? What is the relationship like with their coach or teacher? To what extent is it important for you that they are successful? And most importantly for whom do you want them to succeed? A better way to explore this last question is to ask yourself what percentage of your interest in their performance is for the child and what percentage of your interest in their performance is in some way for you (your pride, your living through your child, expunging your own doubts or failures). These are challenging questions, but the self-reflection is well worth it in terms of helping to keep you staying on your side of the boundary. Being mindful of your own very human part in this will put you in the best position to help your child face up to their own self doubts and hopefully as a result develop an increased sense of mastery and a higher esteem.
Consider the following in formulating your actions:
- Inform an officer of the league of the incident if you observe a coach or a child’s parent “cross the line” in terms of their words or actions with a child, and ask that they address this problem.
- Immediately call 911 if you observe any adult become physically abusive to a child.
- Be courageous enough to observe your own aggressive or overly demanding impulses (It’s OK to find that you have an impulse that is self-serving or aggressive as long as upon reflection you only act on behalf of your child).
- Be courageous enough to seek your own counseling if you find yourself crossing the line with your child.
- Intervene directly if you observe a coach or a child’s parent cross the line, in the heat of the moment this is more than likely to inflame the situation rather than calming things down. If however the safety and well-being of a child is seriously called into question, by all means take appropriate and reasonable steps to protect the child.
- Mistake where you end and where your child begins in terms of what is in his or her best interest. Ask yourself “for whom am I doing this?”
- Put your child in the center of an adult “storm”. If a coach is not a good character-building role model, but tolerable, have your child finish the season and make sure he or she is never on that coach’s team again. If the coach’s behavior is intolerable, inform league officials of his or her actions and immediately remove your child from the team. Do what you need to do as an adult will minimizing the drama to which your child is exposed.