“You know, this win is all the more special because my mom and dad are in the stands today,” he says.
Just then, a cameraman finds my wife and me, a little more gray and wrinkled than we are today, standing and cheering. Fighting back tears, my wife mouths “I love you” to our son. I’m too in awe to do anything.
Right now, our son is just an infant, but so many times in the past few months I’ve dreamed of all he could do when he grows up. Sometimes it’s baseball or medaling at the Olympics. Sometimes he wins the Nobel Prize for inventing time travel or exploring one of Jupiter’s moons. In one dream he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and fights crime as a masked vigilante (I never said the dreams were original).
He’s our first, and I hope he achieves all that he’s capable of. I want to help him on his way, but I’m all too aware of what can happen when a parent’s dream takes over a child’s life. What’s the line between supportive and overbearing? What kind of damage can I do if I go overboard?
When our son was born, a running conversation in our family was that we had just brought an athletic giant into this world. I’m the same height as Michael Jordan with significantly less athletic ability, but my wife is quite the sportswoman, having helped her field hockey team win a state championship in high school.
We hope our son will be smart, kind and lots of other things, but visions of athletic achievement more easily dance in my head than successes of him being a good person and a good student.
My dad and I have joked about which university will recruit him – it’s got to be Notre Dame, because when your last name is McMahon, the Fighting Irish probably already have a jersey lying around for you.
Sometimes my mind wanders beyond the dreams and jokes. I didn’t have too many shining moments in sports as a kid, but given my height, I wonder what might have been had I really stuck with baseball or basketball. With my wife’s athletic ability, could our son be greater than both of us? How far could he go?
I am not the only one who’s had this thought.
“All you need to do is go sit on the sidelines of any field in any suburb or town in the country and you’ll see examples of parents trying to push their kids in the direction that they wish they had gone or hope their kid can go in,” said Craig Garfield, attending pediatrician and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
And yet, Garfield and other experts say that parents have a limited say in whether their child becomes a world class athlete in a particular sport. Garfield said that so much about who a child is and what they’ll become is based on their wiring, and that a boy may be built to play football but end up wanting to be an engineer.
“Our job as parents is to just love the child that we’ve got and support them in the direction they are going in,” Garfield said.
Research also shows that elite athletes don’t tend to receive pressure from their parents when it comes to winning and rankings, said Daniel Gould, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. Rather, parents in the early years of an elite athlete’s life tend to stress the goals of being active and healthy as well as developing values like showing up on time, respecting coaches and making an effort.
Gould said that some athletes he’s studied talk about “optimal parent push,” which in part is about holding their child accountable. If a child doesn’t want to get up for a game or practice on Saturday morning after a party the night before, the parents may tell the child that they signed up for this season. While they can decide whether to play next season, they’ve made a commitment and they need to follow through, Gould said.
On the non-optimal side, children can get burned out and stressed, Gould said, noting a forthcoming study that links the stress kids feel to how much their parents talk about the money they pay for sports. In the long term, if parents are doing everything, the child may not have the motivation to be successful at a high level, where personal drive is key.
Gould agreed that these qualities of an optimal push – teaching children to follow through and instilling strong values – are also good parenting practices on their own.
“If a kid shows talent, and really wants to go somewhere, we should support him or her within reason. But I think sometimes in sport a lot of these good and bad parenting practices get exaggerated because it’s such a public event, and if your kid does well, they get a lot of notoriety and you indirectly get notoriety.”
It can be easy for parents to get caught up in talking about rankings and lose sight of the fact that the child is in sports for lots of different reasons, including learning how to win and lose and falling in love with sport, Gould said.
That love of sport is critical. According to a survey released last year of U.S. Olympic athletes between 2000 and 2012, a love for being active and a love for a particular sport were crucial in helping them continue their athletic growth.
While parental influence ranked fourth among factors for directing an athlete to a particular sport, “pleasing parents” ranked near the bottom when athletes were asked about their motivation to participate in a sport or pursue excellence in their discipline.
And yet, the role of parents and coaches is key, the survey said, in helping to “instill a love of the sport and enjoyment in the activity” in young athletes.
Gould said the same parenting values apply to big money professional sports too, and that good parenting can be helping children find balance and a backup plan when everyone else tells them they are destined for the limelight. The odds are against players making it to the big time, Gould said, and even if they’re a can’t-miss prospect, injuries can derail that train.
“In my opinion, my first responsibility as a parent is to do everything I can to help my kid be a good kid – a productive member of society,” Gould said.
For me, I don’t really want to be the screaming dad at the Little League game, and it’s pretty clear that my son making the cover of Sports Illustrated is mostly out of my hands. But even if I pressed and desperately wanted my dreams to become his reality, there’s no way to know if he’d want those dreams too.
I can’t control whether he wants to be a baseball player or a bassoonist. All I can control is the type of dad I am, and hopefully my wife and I can instill in him the values and ethics needed to be a good man.
As for how to do that, Garfield said that the best thing new dads like me can do right now is be around.
“We lose track of the fact that the thing the baby needs the most is time with the parent,” Garfield said. “We get caught up in teaching the baby this or [asking] should the baby be listening to Mozart, when really what the baby wants and needs and craves the most is time with the mother and father to bond.”
For all that I can’t control, I can be around for him. Whatever he does, wherever he does it, I just hope I get to see it.
Bobby McMahon is a writer and reporter in the Washington D.C. area. He writes about parenting, pop culture and other worthwhile endeavors. Find Bobby on Twitter @bobfrankpat.
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