Soccer dads, spelling bee moms and gentler childhoods

I watched a dad on the other side of a soccer field last week who yelled at one of the players, “Get your hands out of your pants!”, using the child’s name. I don’t know if the child had his hands in his pants, or if it was just a figure of speech. Every player on the child’s team would have heard it. I don’t know if the child cared. But I thought I should go across and ask the dad, all 200 cm of him, why he yelled something like that, maybe with my own hands down my pants to add a bit of colour. I didn’t, of course. I was too scared, to my great shame. I continued to watch the dad. He yelled for the rest of the game, at every one of the players on the team. He swore. Nothing he yelled was positive. 


I imagine this dad – I don't think he was  the coach and, I later learned, he wasn’t father to the child he first yelled at – was wanting the children to play better soccer. I know I’m at the soft end when it comes to parenting but even if I were tougher, I’d know that yelling to someone what you think they’re doing wrong, and most especially shaming or embarrassing them, rarely helps them do what you want or improve in any way. But because I am soft when it comes to parenting, I asked friends what they’d think if they heard a dad yell what this dad yelled. Some were horrified, but others helped me to understand that there’s something deeper going on here. 

One dad, who’d played football himself as a kid, told me he was at a game with his son. To his own horror, during a lull he yelled, “Get in and hit him hard”. People took a step away from him. “I still don’t know what came over me,” he said. Another friend, a physiotherapist, told me that when parents talk about children’s sport, they often say “we” instead of the child’s name, as if they’re not seeing the child as separate. “We’ve got trials coming up.” “We’ve made the final.” When these children don’t meet expectations, parents see their own childhood selves failing, which is unbearable.

So the dad at soccer might be seeing himself out on the field, hands down his pants, metaphorically or even literally. And while I might feel smug right now because I don’t yell such things at soccer, perhaps it’s only because I don’t see myself out there on the field. I see a bunch of kids. But put me as a spectator at a spelling bee – a test, as I see it, of how smart “we” are – and I’m back there doing my best to make my dad proud. “It’s an easy word, you idiot. Come on!” I can imagine yelling. Fortunately, I’m not invited to spelling bees.

A third friend I consulted, a recently retired principal of a small Brisbane primary school, said she banned interschool sports in her early days because she couldn’t control the way some parents would address children. Over time, she started a competition with just a few local schools, but with careful rules; teams weren’t graded, everyone who wanted to play played, and parents remained very much on the sidelines. “Childhood should be gentle,” she said. That idea resonated with me. 

Once I put the soccer dad in a context of his own childhood, I could see myself and other parents heading down a track that wouldn’t always be best for kids. I sat down with my son and talked to him about growing up in my family, how being smart was the most important thing and how I might give the impression sometimes that I need him to be smart. He should make sure he tells me if he ever notices me doing that, I said, because I don’t need him to be smart. I love him just for who he is. Which, in the end, is true for most parents.

Now comes the work, though, to make sure that lesson stays with me for the rest of life. Because childhood should be gentle. It really should.

Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 8 June 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!