Monday, May 04, 2015
We raise our kids within the confines of social, institutional and family discipline. Every day we turn over the shaping of our children’s moral compass and boundaries to teachers, coaches, clergy, police, neighbors, media, peers, and outside pundits in the field of child rearing. We can set limits, model behaviors, instruct, and demand, but kids ultimately have so many influences that they begin to pick and choose which ideas suit them best and will get them in the least amount of trouble. Peer pressure in particular, often fueled by media stimuli, can be a powerful arbiter of behavior. Parents have a difficult time getting our kids to understand and accept what we consider to be appropriate conduct when there are so many opposing forces out there. It may take a village to help raise our kids, but the village may also hinder how we want them to develop.
I grew up raised by everyone in our family circle. Aunts, uncles, grandparents never hesitated to put in their two cents’ worth, even right in front of my parents. Neighbors would freely give me a swat on the behind if I trampled in their garden or threw dirt at their kids, and they had no fear that my mother would report them to the police. Instead, she was grateful that they had handled it immediately. But we’ve moved from an acceptance of that type of discipline. In fact, if someone accuses our kids of something, all too often the knee-jerk reaction is “not my kid.” We’ve become apologists for behavior that used to be completely unacceptable because when our kids are bad, it reflects badly on us. I’m not in favor of corporal punishment, and I’m sure the psychological studies on how it affects our children’s self-image are true, but I also know that most of my peers grew up feeling the sting of a hand or spoon on our hind quarters and we still managed to become an innovative, confident generation.
Recently during the unrest in Baltimore a video went viral of a mother running out into the crowd of young rioters who were throwing bottles and rocks to drag her 16-year-old son back home, cuffing him several times around the ears. As she put it, “I didn’t raise him to be disrespectful to the police…and I didn’t want him to be another [victim].” Her tiger mom response drew lots of opposing points of view equally divided between those who praised her for giving her son an important lesson and dragging him to safety and those who saw her attack as damaging and an inappropriate way to handle the situation. As I told my boys – I’d have done the same thing minus the slapping. They nodded knowingly. On the other hand, would she have wanted the village to intervene? If her neighbor had seen the teen and gone to drag him back, would the mother have been thankful or angry? It gets complicated.
When it comes to youth sports there’s an entire extra layer of discipline that’s added, sometimes not as we would hope. Coaches can forget that their charges are not adults, using the saltiest of language when motivating or chastising them. It’s uncomfortable for parents, who want to respect the authority of a coach to train, but want to protect their kids from influences they feel are improper. One time my 6-year-old grandson was playing a game on my phone. When he achieved a high score, he could input his name on a roster of winners. The game was a very innocent non-violent offering from Disney, so imagine my surprise when I saw the top scorers list where all the names were four letters long and not names at all. When I asked my grandson, he admitted with a sly grin to inputting the titles. I knew his parents didn’t swear, didn’t allow him to see anything with swearing (even bleeped out), and he went to a Catholic school. “Where did you learn these words?” fully expecting to find out he had some peers who used them. “My T-ball coach says them all the time.” How can a parent combat that? You can approach the coach, point out that his or her language makes your child uncomfortable, and hope things improve. If the reaction isn’t positive, then you can talk to the club president or board. Or you can use it as a teachable moment – explain to our children how limiting and disgusting such language is and let them know you don’t approve, especially if they should start repeating the words.
A more pressing problem would be if the coach gets abusive. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Coaches can be very passionate people, but when that passion spills over to physically or verbally accosting kids, we need to step in. That type of behavior is not an acceptable response no matter the age, but particularly for our youngest players. One coach berated an 11-year-old player for five minutes as the reason the team lost the game, totally devastated the trembling boy. His parents were angry, but so were several of us. We took it upon ourselves to confront the coach so the parents didn’t have to. Therefore, the coach couldn’t rationalize that the parents had sour grapes motivating their complaint. Instead he had to listen to us parents who witnessed the attack and agreed it was cruel and unnecessary. That’s how the village can step up in a supportive and significant way. Even if our own children aren’t victims of an aggressive coach, we should be advocates for the kids who are. It’s difficult because we don’t want our intervention to affect our children’s role on a team. Coaches have a tremendous amount of power leading to intimidation, so if parents can join forces and come to the coach calmly and kindly, that intimidation is voided.
Taking the protection and/or discipline of other people’s children can be tricky. I can shift into “mom” mode when I see trouble. I took the cigarettes of three pre-teen boys sitting next to me at a Brewers’ game (when you could still smoke in the stadium) and told them I didn’t think their mother would approve. Maybe she would have, or maybe she would have resented me stepping in, but I felt I needed to at least give those kids pause the next time they lit up. I also wanted to go give whatever shopkeeper sold those kids the cigarettes a piece of my mind. The village is only as strong as its weakest members. On the flipside not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the standards we want for our children. Entrusting our children to others can be tricky. We don’t want to be handing out a list of expectations for the kids: No candy, only G or PG movies, no swearing, no political discussions, etc. We can quickly get a reputation as being overprotective. Therefore, I think that as part of the village we need to check out with other parents if certain things are okay – we plan to go to a PG-13 movie; is that okay with you? As much as we hate having our kids exposed to things we carefully avoid, we should be sensitive to what other parents want. It can be as simple as making sure team snacks have a peanut-free option, for example, and as significant as helping parents out with carpooling.
On the positive side, youth sports provide some excellent additional training. Kids learn how to cooperate, compromise, win and lose with dignity, avoid cheating, and other important moral lessons. Naturally, as they grow, more and more negative influences will seep into their experiences. These can then become teachable moments. Since my sons are minorities, they faced a fair amount of racial slurs during games. They learned that this was more a way to get into their heads than personal attacks, so eventually they could shut it out. It didn’t make it right that it happened, but it also gave them the resilience to learn which battles to fight. At one college game when Bryce was in goal, the opposing school’s students sat behind the net jeering and cat-calling. At one point they yelled out, not knowing it was true, “Bryce, you’re adopted” obviously believing this would be huge slap in the face. Since everyone on his team knew he was adopted, one defender turned around and shouted back to the students, “Yeah he is and his family is awesome,” while the entire team clapped. Apparently those young men had learned the lessons of support and rejecting intolerance, and I suspect some of the lessons were learned on the field. That’s a village in which I was delighted to be a resident.
Discipline is a personal process for every family. Yet we can’t control the vast majority of time our children require discipline. We have to count on a myriad of other disciplinarians. Usually we can trust those people to do the right thing; after all many of them have their own children whom they raised well. Of course, we’ve all experienced those times when parents don’t manage their own kids, leaving them to run wild in a restaurant, cause trouble at the pool, cry during a movie, and any number of other annoying situations. The question is do we intervene? We’re part of the larger village, but we may not be a welcomed part. Likewise, we may not appreciate the behavior modeling and discipline of others within our village. Yet it’s difficult to reject someone’s intervention when it’s well-meaning. Even more difficult is figuring out if what another parent accuses our child of doing is valid or not. We don’t want to be so defensive that we miss the bigger picture – our children need to be accountable for their misdeeds. The good news is that youth sports adds a significant and powerful layer of modeling and oversight which is generally very positive in the development of our children’s ethical nature. We should all let it be known that we welcome the oversight of our children by others. Despite the eyes in the back of our heads we can’t see everything. We need to trust family, friends, neighbors, police, teachers, clergy, and strangers to help us out in keeping our children on the straight and narrow, not to mention safe. No village is perfect, but I’m grateful for their assistance.