By Kelly Wallace
(CNN) — Every time a dad at my 5-year-old daughter’s basketball practice screams from the sidelines urging his son to run faster and shoot better, I cringe and wonder whether he’s trying to live out his own failed hoop dreams through his son. When I see this same dad take to the court after practice and try to shoot like Michael Jordan, I think my theory is right.
And now a study, for the first time, backs it up.
Published in the journal PLOS One, the study is the first to investigate what motivates those sports dads like the one I mentioned and the stage moms you have no doubt witnessed at ballet class and gymnastics.
Researchers worked with 73 parents (89% were moms) from the Netherlands who were, on average, around 43 years old and had children between the ages of 8 and 15. They found that the parents who often saw their children as part of themselves were more likely motivated by their own unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.
“I think this is something that has long been assumed, and never supported through research,” said Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a New York City-based child, adolescent and family psychologist and author of the book, “Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls Who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.”
“It’s a small study, but it is meaningful in that it highlights how this could be detrimental to children.”
While the study did not explore specifically whether these so-called stage parents can harm their kids, Hartstein, who appears regularly on network television news programs including on CNN, said they can, especially when their kids’ activities serve them as much as their child.
“If a father was a failed guitar player, he may really push his child to learn the guitar, to practice all the time, and focus on being the best in that area,” said Hartstein. “This is harmful because it minimizes the child’s ability to make decisions for himself. The parent looks at his child as an extension of himself, rather than as his own person.”
The end result could be a child feeling less confident in his or her own abilities, and worrying too much about mom or dad. “This kind of pressure can also lead a child to fear disappointing his parent, as he is aware, on some level, that his parent is living vicariously through him,” she said.
That is exactly what I think about when I see my daughter’s teammate on the basketball court; I wonder how much he’s worrying about not shooting as well as his daddy wishes he could.
How much do you push? Now while many of us, myself included, might not be stage parents (or admit it!), we often want to encourage our kids, maybe even put pressure on them to do things they don’t want to do. But how much do you push? My 7-year-old seems to be a natural in gymnastics and dance, but she doesn’t want to take any more gymnastics or dance classes. Do I push her to take them even though she says no?
As I struggled with that question, I remembered an interview I did with first lady Michelle Obama when I was at iVillage.com. Obama admitted that Malia, who turns 15 in July, and has played tennis since she was little, wanted to give up the sport at one point but the first lady wouldn’t let her.
“I just sort of said, look, you’re going to do tennis, and you’re going to do tennis because I want you to do an individual sport. It’s not about you being a good tennis player. It’s about you learning how to stick with something hard and get better at it … because that’s … what life is,” the first lady told me during the informal interview last summer in her East Wing office. “Life is getting through stuff that’s hard, teaching yourself that you can do hard things and you get better at them and then they get easier.”
Beth Engelman, co-founder of the blog Mommy on a Shoestring, said if her 7-year-old son had his way, he’d only play soccer, but she pushes him to take karate and tennis lessons, too.
“He hates it, but I make him do it … because I want him to at least have that well-roundedness,” she said. “I think that it’s so easy in this day and age to be like alright, fine, more down time, but I think it’s good to sort of push them at least until they get to middle school and then they can make their own decision.”
Hartstein said there is a “fine line” between encouragement and pressure, and that we, as parents, need to be honest with ourselves about where we fall on that line.
“Encouraging your child to be the best, to work her hardest, to challenge herself to achieve great things is great,” she said. “Pushing them to the brink, where the emotions are always at the surface, and ignoring when there is some shut-down, is not healthy and could be detrimental to your child. It could actually lead to self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety and other mental health related issues.”
We’ve all heard the tragic tale of the successful child actor who burned out in a haze of drugs and dysfunction after hitting his teens. Or the elite young athlete who never wants to touch a racket again after a lifetime of training to the breaking point. Pushing a kid to the top can be perilous.
How to avoid becoming a stage mom or dad
The best advice, Hartstein said, is to talk with your child and take time to really listen. We, as parents, should be checking in to find out how our kids are responding to our pressure and to gauge what their resistance is really about. But the biggest advice is probably this: We need to determine the reason we are pushing in the first place. Is it for our child or solely for us?
So I keep asking myself whether my desire to see my daughter take dance and gymnastics is more about me, since I enjoyed both activities as a kid. Is it because I know she’s good at both and I want to push her, as in the case of Malia Obama, to keep going until she gets really good and can then decide if she wants to give them up?
I haven’t figured out those answers yet, so for now, her dance and gymnastics future is on hold, but I admit I have those class schedules at the ready — just in case!