A film maker and two doctors approached the subject of parents looking to create exceptional children through training, discipline and sheer force of desire. Beginning the discussion was Peter Berg, who directed the film "Friday Night Lights." His first topic on his sports-related documentary series "State of Play" on HBO was titled "Trophy Kids." He looked at four parents and five kids across the sports of football, basketball, golf and tennis. The one-hour program was difficult to watch, showcasing overbearing parents pressuring their kids to aspire to the highest pinnacle of their sports. What we have regarded as stereotypes of Type A parenting played out over that hour to a frightening level. A father swore unrelentingly at the referees and blamed many of his child’s basketball losses on the "95 percent of lousy officiating." The father of a 10-year-old golfer questioned officials on the legality of undue help he felt other parents were giving their children during a tournament and cursed at his daughter under his breath when she failed to make the green. She probably didn’t hear the word, but she certainly got the message through his vocalizations and body language. At one point he accused her of embarrassing him and threatened to "slap her across the face" if she didn’t do what he demanded. A football father berated his son after every game for all his failings and for not being in the coach’s face to find out why he was benched. He generated his own before-school practices for his son and then yanked him around by his gear to get him to do what he wanted. A mother felt her two tennis sons had a talent given to them by God that she had a covenant to develop. She believed they would be the best doubles players ever because they were ordained by God to prove His power.
What was most telling was the follow-up the filmmaker had four months after the primary filming. We learn the basketball player’s father readily admits that he could probably "have bought two Lamborghinis" based on what he spent on privately training his son. The goal was a Division I basketball scholarship, however, the offer he received was a five-year scholarship with a Division II school. The golfing daughter finally won a tournament where parents were not allowed on the course, but she still had not procured a sponsor even though players much younger already had. The football player left his father’s home in Los Angeles and moved in with his mother in Seattle because, as he said, "My dad wasn’t a dad; he was a coach." The tennis players entered high school, tried out for the team and were put on the J.V. squad. All of those footnotes highlighted that what the parents saw in their kids was rarely the reality of their talent. The basketball player was skilled at three point shots, but that alone couldn’t sustain him at the next level where defense, team work and speed on the court have equal importance. The football player was a tentative athlete at best and would probably never move beyond high school no matter how driven his father was. The young man just didn’t have the heart of an elite athlete and certainly lacked many of the necessary skills. The tennis players, despite tons of extra practice, hadn’t risen to the level of exceptional. As a golfer, the young woman in the film had determination and some apparent skills, but she was still overshadowed by players two or three years younger, which did not bode well for her future at the top level of the sport.
The saddest part of the documentary was the lack of evident love and pride from these parents towards their children. The golfer’s father admitted in a voice-over that he was tremendously proud of his daughter and what she had achieved thus far, but he couldn’t let her know – not until "they" had accomplished the goals necessary to put her on top – because it would undercut her development. Mom couldn’t praise her sons because their tennis skills came not from them but from God. They didn’t deserve the honor. All his father could muster toward the football player was screaming at his son that if he didn’t love him he wouldn’t care at all what he did and not demand excellence of him. Love was supposedly demonstrated through harsh, demeaning judgment because it was making his son a man. The last image of the basketball player shows his father hugging him right after his team won the state championship. In a voice over the father states how the win gave him a reason to love his son.
While most of us aren’t as crazed or unforgiving as these four parents who were obviously selected to make some strong points about sports direction, we all must admit that we have fallen prey to elements in the film. We may have questioned our child’s commitment to the sport, or drilled her about errors made on the field, or demanded that our sons speak up to coaches. Our desire for our kids to succeed creates blinders to how good our children really are. When we believe them to be exceptional then we find ourselves incredulous that coaches and scouts don’t see the same thing. We may compare our children to other players on the team, "You’re faster than Jody. Why don’t you show it?" or "How come you always let Sammy take the shot?" While we may profess that we are just happy that our kids are playing a sport they enjoy, we all secretly harbor the dream that our son or daughter will be on the next Olympic team. That dream can make us expect unrealistic play and outcomes. With those expectations will come criticism, as if we could mold our child into that perfect, elite prodigy that writes the next great symphony, stars on Broadway, signs a $24 million contract with the Boston Red Sox, or invents the next Apple computer. We will push, cajole, beg, demean, discipline and intervene in an attempt to insure that our child achieves at a level higher than he or she is capable of.
One of the doctors joining in on this discussion is Drew Pinsky, an internist who is also an addiction specialist. He has coined the phrase, "narcissistic parenting" to encapsulate these behaviors demonstrated in "Trophy Kids." He argues that it isn’t just wanting to live vicariously through our children’s accomplishments which makes a narcissistic parent. That’s a component, but he explains that it actually stems from our unwillingness to be seen as anything less than perfect in our abilities to manufacture the ideal child. We want people to believe that we have some exceptional parenting talent which anoints us with children skilled beyond all others. This belief that as parents we are gifted in our parenting means that our children can also do no wrong, so parents make excuses for their kids and doing their work because any mistake reflects back badly on the parents. Narcissistic parents also don’t provide boundaries or consequences because perfect children don’t require these. What we end up with are parents who push their children to succeed, provide outside ancillary training to further that success, and have little tolerance for anything they perceive to be failures because that means they are failures. Worse, they don’t provide any support in the form of love and praise because they see those emotions muddying the goals.
Larry Lauer, PhD., is the mental skills specialist for the United States Tennis Association Player Development Program and the former Director of Coaching Education and Development in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University. In the latter capacity, he researched tennis parents, coaching, coach education, aggression in hockey and life skills development in youth. His conclusions showed that parents don’t understand the true developmental levels of children in sports and have unrealistic ideas of what children are capable of accomplishing at various age levels. In quizzing parents he learned that few understood how both physical and mental development occurs. For example, in a roundtable discussion following the airing of "Trophy Kids," he commented on the football father constantly berating his son, "Why don’t you get it?!" The father expected that his physically developed 15-year-old son would have the adult mental development to match and should fully understand the nuanced structure of football plays and how to anticipate those plays. However, Dr. Lauer explains that for many kids mental development in a sport lags behind the physical development. As parents we can’t expect our own children’s development to match or exceed that of other kids on the team. Yet we see a player with a fully developed "soccer brain" and believe that if our child would just try harder she could be as good or better. If she doesn’t achieve at that level we internalize that failure as our own. Dr. Lauer’s research also showed that kids who get demonstrated love and praise from their parents have stronger self-images, fewer addiction problems, and succeed as measured by normal standards of success — graduating from school, getting a job, having a happy marriage, and possessing good health. He has observed few cases of parents being able to will their children into elite athletes, although we are aware of such cases: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Todd Marinovich. In such cases we have also seen the players suffer through horrible personal demons. In the drive to create "test-tube athletes" something significant in the child’s development is lost: childhood.
Marinovich, in particular, provides a strong cautionary tale for parental manipulation. His father, a former lineman for USC and a strength and conditioning coach for the Oakland Raiders, began molding his son before he was a month old taking over his diet, fitness, education, and all life decisions. Todd trained more hours than he hit the school books and stuck to a regimented diet and curfew. By his senior year in high school he had earned multiple honors such as Parade All-American and player of the year (1987) for both Dial and the Touchdown Club. Recruited by USC to be their quarterback, he was the first freshman starting quarterback since World War II. But when he went to college he was suddenly thrust into a world where his father no longer controlled his every move and decision. He imploded into drug and alcohol use, wild parties and missing classes. By the time he was recruited into the NFL, he was an addict and far behind in his emotional and decision-making maturity. Eventually he burned out in spectacular fashion. Drafted in 1991, he was out of the NFL by 1993 due to three failed drug tests. He made several come-back attempts both with the NFL and the Canadian Football League, but couldn’t shake his demons. He was part of the round-table discussion following "Trophy Kids." When asked what he would say to the football player who after a particularly nasty fight with his father ended up on the curb crying, Todd said, "I probably wouldn’t say anything. It would be more a hug." He admitted that the lack of evident oral and physical affection from his parents, especially his father, had everything to do with his poor choices later in life. Left without any self-confidence, a sense of being loved unconditionally, and a moral compass to handle decisions and adversity, he drifted into a world where drugs filled the void.
This isn’t to say that all kids with controlling, demanding parents will end up on drugs or homeless like Marinovich. But it does point out how damaging parental expectations can be. It is one thing to set the bar high and quite another to berate a child for not reaching the bar. A positive example can be found in a recent viral video which shows a father in England reacting to his son finally passing math. The son had lifted his course grade from an F to a C, and the father was uncontrollably delirious, hugging his son, laughing with joy, and giving him a shower of verbal praise. The joy on the son’s face was also stunning as both enjoyed the moment of achieving "averageness." It’s a strong lesson in how we should be parenting, proud of accomplishments no matter how small without any strings attached. The father didn’t push the achievement by adding, "Now maybe you can earn a B." He let the moment be just as it was. I would love to see where that kid lands in ten years, but I’m imagining he’ll be happy and successful. Rather than demanding an A, the father simply wanted his son to pass. As parents we should want our kids to find their own level of success without the pressure to excel. We can provide nurture as passion and talent dictate, but we need to check ourselves to be sure we aren’t misinterpreting or forcing passion and talent to serve our preconceived notions of where our children should place. Nurturing is a warm, gentle approach, not a typhoon of demands. We should educate ourselves in the milestones of athletic physical and mental development so we don’t have unrealistic expectations, and we should partner with our children, guiding them where we can and letting them lead where they should. It’s particularly important that we learn to listen. We may not end up with exceptional athletes, but we will end up with exceptionally happy children.