We’re told that we should do our best to win. We’re told that losing can be okay if we did our best, in trying to win. I’ve learned, though, that sometimes even the person or team that wins also comes out as a loser. Time and again, we hear about the importance of children being involved in sports, music, and other activities to foster self-confidence, teamwork, and other skills that will hopefully help them succeed as adults. What we commonly see is parents taking something that is fun and intended to help children and turn it into a harmful experience. Cheering “for” children is positive. Clapping for good performance or, at a minimum, good effort, for both teams is positive. Not just saying good game but, moreover, demonstrating good sportsmanship is a positive thing. I believe this is a sound belief based upon sound thinking. I also think most parents would agree with it, but what happens when they act differently? The story that follows is one answer.

Several years ago, at a 10U basketball game, I sat watching kids try to help their team win, while concurrently watching some of their parents try to ensure both teams lost. What I unfortunately witnessed was not positive. Parents literally jumped up and down screaming at the referees, both for calling things and not calling things. They screamed at (not cheered for) their children and other children on both teams. Parents openly made snide remarks to other parents about what they thought should have happened and the efforts of kids on both teams, from their bleacher vantage point. Worse was the fact that children on both teams were visibly nervous. What was the difference between this and other games throughout the season where the kids looked like they were actually having fun? The irate parents. Any doubt I had about the ludicrousness of the scene was erased when a preteen sitting nearby said aloud, “Geez. What’s wrong with you people? It’s just a game.”

The pinnacle of disappointment for me, though, was when parents cheered when a child on the opposing team fouled out of the game. And no, it is not my child – although I almost wish such were the case so I could attempt to undo the psychological damage undoubtedly done by effectively being bullied by someone else’s parents. There was no room for interpretation here. When the referee calls a foul, announces it is their final one, and these parents jumped up and cheered, they were cheering “for” the child being removed. And lest you ask, no, the child was not playing any more or less roughly than any of the players. He simply stood in the way of potential victory for their team. Moments before it happened, I personally heard several parents yelling back and forth to each other that the child “only had one more”. The bottom line was that the player in question was a child, not a professional athlete. Imagine how you, as an adult, would feel if you were to go to work, make “too many” mistakes, and be publicly fired. On top of that, imagine your coworkers cheering as you collected your things and walked out the door. Whether you were in the right or the wrong would never give them license to cheer your misfortune. Yes, one is expected to sleep in the proverbial bed they make for themselves, but relishing in someone else’s misfortunate only results in dirtying one’s own bed. As such, I cannot fathom a scenario where it would be deemed a civil or sportsmanlike act to cheer “against” someone’s child. 

Yet this is what we saw. To be perfectly clear, I am not of the ilk who believes everyone deserves a trophy. I believe in keeping score, celebrating hard-fought and sportsmanship-filled wins, and that ultimately losing on the court, field, or whatever venue can be just as valuable as winning. Having my children involved in sports, Boy Scouts, music, etc. throughout the years has been “for them”. We celebrate their successes with them, and we encourage them to look into themselves when they don’t do well or win.  Just as when I was in the military, I often do an informal, home version of an After Action Review (AAR) to talk about what went well and what didn’t. It’s something that is intended to build upon both success and failure, not highlight their or anyone else’s shortcomings. Never, though, do I impose my desire to participate, practice, or win on my children. Why would I? It’s for and about them, not me. My wife and I have made our own paths to achieve our individual and collective successes, and now, it is out duty as parents to do our best to help our children do the same for themselves. Me screaming at my child’s teacher or boss or celebrating someone else’s loss at my child’s gain is simply not an option, in my capacity as both a parent and decent human being. Ultimately, our goal at home is to teach our kids to learn how to both win and lose well. I’m not an educator, counselor, or a mental health professional by vocation, but I am certain these are the same things they seek in helping children grow into productive and well-adapted adults – the kind who show dignity and respect for everyone, not just “their” teammates.

Sadly, in my humble opinion, everyone “lost” in this game – the parents, the referees, and worst of all, the children. Yes, there are always some children who come to tears, but the number of kids I saw who rarely (if ever) do last night was truly saddening. I credit the ill-behaved parents for this. It’s not correlation either. It’s direct causation. The stress of the situation was too much for even the “winning” children. While congratulations are in order for the winning team (read: the children who were actually out there hustling), I cannot help but wonder how some of these children may act as teenagers, much less as adults, given the example they saw. When their child becomes furious at not getting what they want, gets ejected for lashing out at a referee, or is accused of bullying, I only hope their parents don’t ask, “Why are they like this? Why did they do that?” If they do, they will only need look in the mirror to find at least part of the answer.

After the game, I went to the referees and said I was sorry for the way they were treated. They said, “thank you,” but went on to say that they were used to it. For me, this was also a very sad testament to where we are at, as a society, in terms of civility, dignity, and respect. People talk a good game, and in their own business, social, and family circles, they probably do a good job of showing it. That said, I am a steadfast believer that, at the end of the day, the real measure of a person’s goodness is seen in how they treat someone they don’t know, who has nothing to offer them, or has nothing more in common, other than that they are simply a fellow human being.

As a reader, you’ll either “get it” or you won’t. If you do, though, I hope you’ll carry the idea and message  forward, in whatever way with which you’re most comfortable. If you don’t get it now, I truly hope you do at some point in the future. If we want a community and society that is founded in and operates on what should be the intrinsic values of dignity and respect, show it. Show it when you drive, when you shop, when you deliver a service, when you attend a sporting event, when you comment on social media, or do anything else. Above all, though, show it to your kids. They’re counting on you to do this and so much more.