Parent behaving badly on the sidelinesSuccess and failure—in sports, academics, or extracurricular activities—are part of growing up. Unfortunately, so are the snide comments that adults sometimes make in response to a child’s performance.

Just ask Cara Smith, an Alexandria, NJ mother of three. “This past year during my son’s travel soccer game, a mother from the opposing team called him a derogatory name. She complained about him to the ?parents in her proximity, but loudly enough that I could clearly hear her,” Smith says.

According to Marion Rollings, PhD, a child and family psychologist in Bound Brook, NJ, such objectionable behavior isn’t unusual. “It appears to be a common problem that’s growing. In session, children and parents often discuss coaches yelling at team members, arguments between parents, and parents yelling at coaches and players,” she says. “This is seriously inappropriate, immature, and irresponsible behavior.”

Examples abound. A Middletown, NJ father of four, John Griffin, says at his then-12-year-old son’s football game, a parent from the opposing team yelled, “Good, knock him down again and take him out of the game,” after that parent’s son toppled the quarterback with a legal tackle. “It’s one thing to encourage a good play, but quite another thing to encourage injuring a child,” Griffin says.

At Marye Hartman’s son’s middle school baseball game, the parent of a pitcher from the opposing team told his son to throw a ?little “chin music” past the batter. “Many kids that age have a hard time controlling their pitches to begin with, but this guy was telling his son to deliberately aim for the batter’s head,” says Hartman, of Kingwood.

The phenomenon of parent criticism also goes beyond the sports field. One dance studio owner in Hillsborough, NJ says parental negativity can diminish the positive lessons inherent in dance competition.

“Kids learn by example, and they’re likely to adopt their parents’ habits. If a parent is setting an example of jealousy, unwarranted anger, or stubbornness, then all her child gets from participating is technique—and not the other good things dance can provide,” he says. “At the very least, the kids are cheated of the positive lessons they could learn about sportsmanship, self esteem, and teamwork.”

How Kids Respond

Parental sniping, no matter where it happens, inevitably alters the tone of a game or performance. “A fun, competitive event is transformed into an arena for inappropriate adult behavior that often embarrasses and humiliates children. Some children learn to mimic the verbal aggression; others withdraw and suffer in silence over their mistakes or perceived inadequacies,” Rollings says.

Yet sports psychologist David Pilchman, PhD, of Springfield, NJ says irresponsible adult behavior isn’t the norm. “Most parents support their kids and teams in a positive way, and understand appropriate sideline behavior,” he says. “But there are times when parents are overly aggressive. These people don’t understand performance. What motivates them is not what’s in the best interests of the children."

To meet those interests, Chris Michaels, PhD, a co-founder of a sports psychology group in Mendham, NJ, says communication between coaches and parents is key. “Preseason meetings between coaches and parents provide an excellent venue to discuss expectations for the season. Coaches can also provide a letter to parents on sportsmanship and behavioral expectations, and both can participate in a program designed to increase parent understanding of fan ?impact on performance,” he says.

How Parents Should Respond

If you, as a parent, witness parents behaving badly, how should you respond?

“If an uncomfortable situation occurs, it’s important for the parent to find an appropriate way to communicate to the other person his or her concerns,” Michaels says. “This can be done in the stands, or by pulling the other person off to the side, but it’s important not to escalate the situation.”

That’s how Cara Smith handled her son’s heckler. “I approached the woman who made the comment and told her, ‘He is not a ______. He is a child and he’s my son.’ A while later she approached me to apologize,” Smith says.

Kudos to Smith, and also to the offending parent who, Rollings says, managed the situation correctly. “If parents find themselves guilty of bad behavior, they need to take ownership of their mistakes. Making an apology to those they have offended is helpful,” she says.

Shameful adult behavior can also be a learning opportunity for children. “It’s important that parents discuss the event with their child and explore how the child felt about it—and the behavioral options that best exemplify sportsmanship,” Michaels says.

Rollings agrees. “It’s an excellent opportunity to talk with kids about the situation, discuss what they learned, and how in the future a similar situation could be handled differently with better results.”

The bottom line is that all good sportsmanship starts at home. “The motto my husband and I have always tried to instill in our children is ‘win with grace and lose with dignity’,” Smith says. Sideline parents would benefit from following that advice as well.

Spelling Out Sportsmanship

  • Sometimes the best way to ensure a positive sideline experience is to have parents sign on the dotted line—or go back to school themselves. Kevin Dearman, vice president of the Mid New Jersey Youth Soccer Association (MNJYSA) and Coordinator of its Set A Good Example (S.A.G.E.) program, says his league requires parents and players to sign a sportsmanship pledge—which outlines expectations for parental behavior on the sidelines—each season.
  • The Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports™ program offers tools, information, quizzes, grants, and awards to successfully guide adults as they interact with kids both on and off the field.

Patricia Fiaschetti, a freelance writer, lives in Hunterdon County with her husband and two sons, who play middle and high school sports.