Here’s something they don’t warn you about before you become a parent: Having a kid forces you to mingle with other parents.
If you want your kid to be sociable, you’ll have to be sociable yourself. Oftentimes, you’ll find yourself in close quarters with complete strangers. And, you don’t get to choose your company.
Take watching sports, for instance.
Your kid ends up on a team, usually randomly. Suddenly, you’re working a food stand with four other parents … stuck under a tiny tarp waiting out a rain delay … butt-to-butt in the bleachers … expected to bond simply because your kids are all Tigers or Lions or Bears.
Basketball bleachers were always among the tightest quarters I recall — especially when the kids were little and played in older gyms with limited seating.
During one of my daughter’s games I learned the hard way that I had to tone it down. Basically, my outside soccer voice did not fly in an indoor, crowded gym.
What can I say? I was excited. Carla, only about 12 then, was scoring — a lot. Seemed every time her team went down court, she got the ball, and drove to the basket successfully.
“Go Bubba!” I shouted loudly, with enough decibels to turn heads, mostly friendly but I got a couple glares, too. I was not only too exuberant but I used her old nickname. As a baby, she crawled with a distinctive butt wobble. Fast-forward to the basketball game; it was not cool to be shouting from the sidelines references to my almost-teen daughter’s backside.
The next time she scored I cheered more softly and I altered that nickname to “Zubba.” Then, “Zubbalitta.” She kept on driving and the game was close. She had 12 points, then 14 and she wasn’t done. She wasn’t hogging the ball, either. She had assists. I added a new syllable every time she did well.
The crowd was with me. I became less a boor and more a stand-up comic.
The other team couldn’t stop her; I could’t stop myself.
By the time the game ended, she had 21 points. Her nickname at that point, to the delight of most in the crowd, was something like “Zubbalittalubbalubbalitta.” And it has stuck. To this day.
I recently saw a scary movie.
It wasn’t billed as horror, or even suspense or drama. It was a documentary about parents watching their kids play sports. Correct that — a documentary about insane parents watching their kids play sports.
Called “Trophy Kids,” the Netflix film followed some parents who were very involved — to put it as nicely as could ever possibly be put — as they helped train and coach their kids. Two dads wanted their sons to be great basketball players; another believed he was grooming his young daughter to become a pro golfer; a fourth father wanted his son to excel at high school football. The latter, an angry but determined guy, continually warned his boy that success or failure at football would equate with success or failure at becoming a man.
Yeah, it was that sickening.
At one point, as the football dad lectured his son in their minivan, I wised I could reach through the TV glass and flick the guy’s naked eyeballs — anything to give the kid a chance to flee from the merciless harangue.
While watching this movie, I repeatedly wondered about the paperwork the filmakers must have gotten these parents to sign beforehand. I presume the release forms were so ironclad that these dads simply couldn’t pull out of the film once they saw for themselves the unhealthy nature of their obsession. Or, maybe they never realized how crazy they were behaving. Maybe they were blinded by arrogance.
The movie made me think back to moments like Carla’s 21-point basketball game.
My wife and I watched our five kids play a lot — from the bleachers, the sidelines, peering through all that chain link fence. We spent a gazillion hours trying to see through those little diamonds of chain link to the big diamonds of baseball and softball beyond.
Our children played many different sports, so we sat through some boring games. But rewards were great, too. We witnessed many moments of great excitement, thrills, suspense. But Trophy Kids got me wondering whether my wife and I were actually blind to our own antics. Did we pressure the kids too much? Did we embarrass them? Were we fanatics?
I asked the kids, who are grown now and have no reason to sugarcoat history. They have also never been shy in offering us, well, constructive criticism.
Fortunately, they gave us good report cards. They thanked us for coming to so many events, even if we didn’t always know all the rules for what we watched. My wife’s screaming during wrestling matches was more fun to watch than the matches, several kids said. Still, despite our obvious enthusiasm, we got good marks for not taking anything all too seriously, even though the kids did well enough to compete in some fairly high-stakes matches and games.
Most importantly, they said, was that we showed up. We cared, without caring too much.
Sorry if this seems self-serving. I didn’t set out to write with braggadoccio. I am actually trying to figure out how — or why — we avoided getting too sucked in, maybe pass on a few tips.
Based on the kids’ comments, the input from my wife, my observations of Trophy Kids and what I saw in real-life parental excesses, here are some ways to avoid getting booted off the bleachers. And, to keep your eyeballs from getting flicked.
— Get real. Your kid most likely isn’t a superstar. If he is, get out of the way and get him or her a real coach. The worst excesses I witnessed involved dads trying to coach their own sons. Either they were way too hard on them as examples or they coddled them, ruining any chances these kids had at making friends while making baskets.
— Goof around. It’s play! Remember! Be a clown if you’re good at it.
Some of my girls’ best memories were times I helped out as coach, wearing half a basketball on my head, teaching girls how to slide on plastic tarps in the rain with Dawn dishwashing detergent, making up goofy signs for running basepads, like a flamingo standing on one leg.
— Learn when to shut up. Who says you have to dissect every play? Kids know when they screw up. What good does it do to revisit what just happened, especially the bad stuff, unless your child really wants to engage, or something serious has gone wrong?
— Do talk about the outrageous behavior from the stands and bleachers and make it clear it’s not acceptable.
Interestingly, when asked to think back to their playing days, my kids recalled very specific bad conduct by parents and athletes from back then, or what they are seeing now as they transition to parents on the sidelines.
The coddled boy who tried to go after a fan in the stands, a teammate’s mother, with a bat. The little league coach who criticized and threatened parents, expecting the boys not to rat him out. The former minor league baseball player coaching 9-year-old boys like they were 29, openly criticizing individual kids until they were red-faced and ready to cry, cursing loudly as he did so.
The dad screaming “Plow him over!” to his 6-year-old son learning how to run around the bases. The parent shouting “Why do we pay for baseball camp if you’re just going to strike out every time?”
The immature girls’ basketball coach who got so angry he broke a white board over his leg, cutting his hand bad enough to need stitches, and on, and on.
My point is that the conduct didn’t go unnoticed. Kids are impressionable but not stupid. They recognize when someone’s acting outside the norm, like the dad making a scene over a stupid missed tackle. The kids need to talk about that kind of behavior so that, together, you can set the bar for what’s OK, and what’s not.
One thing that was apparent in Trophy Kids. The parents lectured and the kids stayed silent. You really want to teach your kids to let adults get in their faces and say whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous? I don’t.
My wife and I agreed early on that courage is one of the greatest attributes to try to instill in a child. I think all parents should teach kids to be brave enough to stand up to — or get away from — a parent acting like an ass.
Especially if that ass happens to be you.