A recent social media discussion got me thinking about the dynamics of hockey parents, my own sports experiences growing up, and how things have changed. When I was in sports, parents just didn’t go to away games, and not even all parents came to all the home games. We didn’t expect it from our parents, nor did we care if they showed up or not. It was our game, our experience. Our parents just paid for it (very little, I might add). Sure, they encouraged us, and there was the odd parent here and there who seemed a little overbearing, but it was just nothing like it is today.
I have said before I was a reluctant hockey parent. I was scared of the financial investment as a single mom, but I distinctly remember my dad buying him his first set of gear and thinking, “That total isn’t so bad. I can do this.” By the time he was wearing gear out before growing out of it or growing out of it before the end of the season, I was already a member of the family, and I say “family” like it’s the mafia, so imagine that in Tony Soprano’s voice. There was no stopping at that point. I was in, and you couldn’t make me stop.
You develop close friendships with the other families because you spend so much time with them going to practices and games and tournaments, and that morphs into social gatherings, and soon other people’s kids are like your own. Hockey goes from being an activity your child does to most of your social circle to your family, and it happens very quickly.
My parents can’t relate to that, though, because somewhere along the lines, expectations changed. Parents are now expected to be a lot more involved in their children’s activities. Not only that, it seems like we are judged for how involved we are, as if we aren’t a good parent if we just drop our kid off at the rink for practice or if we don’t go to every single game or volunteer for every opportunity. There can be a lot of indirect peer pressure from the other parents that perpetuates the intense and toxic culture that youth sports has become, yet making the choice to steer clear of it means giving up friendships and social capital. That can be a hard choice to make because it might also affect your child’s experience, and we have somehow been led to believe that if our child has a negative experience, that is reflected on us as a parent.
I can distinctly remember thinking about this when my son’s first away cross country meet came up. I thought about how my parents wouldn’t have gone, but it was only a half hour drive to go, so I went, and I ended up going to all of them, even if they were an hour or more away. He was going to be on a school bus, so he had transportation, and I didn’t need to provide it, yet somehow I felt like I had to be there, and the vast majority of the other parents were there, too, if not all of them. Then there was a football summer camp. I just dropped him off at the school for that, and he took the bus to Sioux Falls with his team, but I later found out most of the other parents got hotel rooms and went as well. I found myself wondering if that was why no one talked to me at the football games. That 3 ½ hour drive and the hotel stay seemed crazy to me for a summer camp.
Who was I to judge, though? That right there's the rub. I wouldn’t ask these people for parenting advice, yet I was accepting their judgement, and it was judgement that wasn’t even happening except in my mind. Youth sports has capitalized on that fear of judgement and fear of missing out, and we have all bought into it and taken it to an extreme. Chances are pretty good that none of those other parents would have even noticed if I hadn’t been there. I am not permanently scarred from my parents not attending my swim meets, and my parents can barely understand why I make such an effort for my child’s activities. They never had to wonder if they missed a game would the other parents shun them? If they didn’t sit with the other parents in the bleachers, would the other parents think they were snobs or think they were horrible parents? Their social circle was formed through their own activities and not their children’s.
I’m not saying either way is right or wrong. That isn’t for me to say, but I will say I think many of us spend too much time worrying about what others think about our decisions and prioritizing that over what is actually best for us. Most of the time others aren’t thinking about us anyway because they are worrying about the same things we are, and while reality is uncomfortable at times, it’s not usually as painful as what we create in our own minds.
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