I was dumbfounded. Sitting across from me in the exam room, my patient continued to review his lifestyle over the last two years. His son, who was in his early teens, had been playing baseball for a travel team. For nearly six months of the year, this boy’s family would spend their weekends at ballparks, often driving hundreds of miles and staying overnight in a hotel. The financial expense was significant, considering the cost of meals in restaurants, fuel, a hotel, and the participation fee. But what was staggering was the impact on their family life and the personal life experience of each family member. Why did they do it?
More Than for the Sport of It
Participation in a sport has several benefits, including exercise, developing mastery and self-efficacy, learning to work with others toward a common goal, and building a sense of belonging. But looking at the time and energy that many people devote to sports, there must be more to it.
It seems it’s not enough to experience the health benefits of an activity — people need their kids to be good at it! Consider some of the following trends:
- Preschoolers in team sports.
- Year-round sports participation.
- Private coaching.
- Travel teams.
- Twice-a-day practices.
- Parents afraid their kids will be left behind.
- Preschoolers and school-age children specializing in a single sport.
- Devoting large amounts of discretionary time to attend sporting events.
- Parents intimidated by coaches and their requirements.
- Young children becoming downcast over their performance or losing.
While team sports participation seems to be the #1 choice of parents for their children’s extra-curricular activities, it could easily be something else, like dance lessons, children’s theater, show choir, or art lessons. Parents want their kids to succeed, and participation in extra-curricular activities seems to be one way to achieve success. It begs the question: what is successful parenting?
If you ask parents about what they would consider a successful outcome for their children, you’ll get answers like:
- High academic achievement in school.
- Go to a good college and get a high-paying job.
- Stay out of trouble (i.e. drugs, unintended pregnancy, breaking the law).
- Turning out “right” (usually referring to their kid’s character).
If you listen to what the parenting experts say, they tend to avoid setting end goals, but rather emphasize process goals, such as how parents teach discipline, build self-esteem, encourage learning and resilience, and promote participation in enriching activities like sports. They leave it to parents to define the end goals.
Then, if you ask those who society considers successful adults — people who have achieved financial success and acclaim — you’ll find yet different answers. Many downplay their affluence and fame. Instead, they appear to dwell more on finding meaning and purpose through helping others or by leaving a legacy. They seem to care more about their family and the love they receive from their children.
Trying to find a definition of parental success remains elusive. Nevertheless, while parents may not be sure where they’re headed, they’re working hard to get there.
Two Parenting Styles
Parents today seem to take on some variation or hybrid of two opposite parenting styles: intensive parenting and hands-off parenting.
Style #1: Intensive parenting.
These parents have centered their lives around their children. They learn and apply the latest parenting advice. They provide enrichment activities for their kids to the max. They work hard to see that their kids come out on top, whatever they do. These parents will do whatever is necessary to see their kids meet their potential. They usually have strong ideas about the kind of outcomes they want for their children.
Style #2: Hands-off parenting
These parents are the opposite of the intensive parent. They think their kids need to decide their own course. They tend to minimize disciplinary measures. They don’t try to push their kids into sports, or anything else, for that matter. For this group, parents are supposed to give their kids space to be who they are and let them define success on their own terms.
There probably aren’t a large number of parents who practice a pure hands-off policy, at least intentionally, because in our country that could be considered neglect. Sometimes the hands-off approach isn’t intentional. People who work two or three jobs to make ends meet, or single parents who struggle just to survive, may not have the time or means to involve their kids in many activities.
But even without these obstacles, parents play “hands-off” in some of the most important areas — like religion or sexual activity. While they may be attentive to the details of the sport their teen plays, they’ll also show up at the physician’s office asking for birth control for their child because they’re concerned she might get pregnant. Somewhere there is a big disconnect.
That’s the background material. In the next blog, we’ll look at some of the fallacies about successful parenting and how you can avoid them.