In the last election, politicians sought the votes of soccer moms. This time we have a hockey mom running for vice president -- a self-described "pit bull" hockey mom. It isn't just mothers who are judged by this new standard of sports-obsessed parent. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia recently was forced to admit to a "60 Minutes" television audience that his judicial responsibilities took him away from his children's games. (His wife picked up the slack.) And it isn't just Republicans who are talking about this issue: When Al Gore was running for president, he stressed that he always put his kids' sports games in his schedule book "in ink."
When did the character of public officials depend on being boosters at child athletic events? Until the 1980s, young children mostly played in the neighborhood, free of adult observation and coaching. Older kids taught younger ones how to play an endless variety of games. Parents in most neighborhoods were content to have their children out of sight and enjoying themselves. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, our parents did not spoil our fun by watching us play sports. Organized, highly competitive sports did not kick in until adolescence and high school varsity teams.
The 1980s brought the widespread trends of big-time youth sports and the parental responsibility to cheer from the sidelines at every game (and as many practices as one could make). This was fueled by the unprecedented stardom of prepubertal Olympians like Nadia Comaneci and the pervasive media presence of multimillionaire celebrity athletes like Michael Jordan. In more recent years we have the Tiger Woods phenomenon of professional athletes who started their careers almost in diapers. Nowadays many young children specialize in a single, intense sport to the exclusion of all others, at the risk of injury and burnout during adolescence.
The mark of a good parent in today's world is personal chauffeuring rather than group carpooling, cheering loudly from the sidelines at all games, advocating with coaches for their child's playing time, and backing away from any activity (such as family dinners and PTA meetings) that conflicts with year-round sports schedules that rival those of professional athletes. The top-rated parents become agents for their children's sports careers; average parents just try to keep their balance in a world that rewards excess.
This is all part of a larger trend toward what psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld has termed "hyper-parenting" and what others have labeled "helicopter parenting." Fed by understandable anxiety about success in a competitive world, middle-class parents spare no time or expense in enhancing their child's developmental edge, beginning with in utero sound waves and then with Baby Einstein products. "Black Hawk parents" (or now "pit bull parents") criticize slackers on their child's team, attack coaches for depriving Jason or Samantha of their rightful playing time and aggressively go after the opponents -- the young children on the other team. Ridiculing a highly paid professional athlete is a privilege that comes with the price of the ticket, but trying to unnerve a 9-year-old pitcher or goalie -- that's what pit bull parents do to show their devotion to their offspring. A few even assault other parents, referees or coaches.
It's ironic that parents who would never miss an athletic event often overlook what research and common sense attest are the most important activities that parents do with their children, things like having meals with them and quietly reading to them. One national study found that young children's academic success and psychological well-being were far more strongly influenced by time spent eating meals with parents than by time spent doing anything else, including extracurricular activities. I hope that politicians start boasting about eating with their children or turning off the TV in order to have family conversations. Anything except parenting by excess.
Maybe the change has already begun. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and his wife, Megan O'Hara, have talked publicly about having as many family dinners as they can. Barack and Michelle Obama recently did a public service by telling People magazine that they hold back on birthday presents because their kids get more than enough from relatives and friends. Even more important, grass-roots organizations of citizen parents launched first by Minnesotans are calling for more balance between family life and youth sports.
Politicians play on cultural common sense. The rest of us create it.
William J. Doherty is a professor of family social science and director of the Families and Democracy Project at the University of Minnesota.