GAZETTE: What’s really at risk for kids when they see these kinds of actions by the people who are supposed to be setting an example by modeling good behavior?
WEISSBOURD: It sends all the wrong messages. What you really want to be modeling for your kid in a situation like this is that the referee is doing a job that is largely thankless. It’s not a well-compensated job. We should be grateful to them. You should be modeling for your kids that sometimes people make mistakes and when they do, you may want to point it out to them, but you do it in ways that are generous and constructive. You should let them know this ref isn’t trying to make a mistake. And you need to model for your kids that you’re not going to suddenly lose control. It’s a scary thing for a kid when their parent is so out of control.
GAZETTE: In addition to parents getting involved and calling out bad behavior on the sidelines, what can be done? Should kids try to address the situation in some way?
WEISSBOURD: It’s really hard for kids to take on an adult in a situation like this, but they can talk to their own parents about it. I do think that every league should have a compact with parents of one kind or another that spells out what the league’s role is in promoting ethical character and what appropriate parent behavior is, because some parents really don’t know. There are differences in cultures and the way people interact with sporting events. And that compact should be revisited periodically so it lives and breathes; it’s not just another form. So, I think it’s important to spell out what constructive and appropriate behavior is. It’s also about encouraging parents to do things like thank the coaches, or thank the referees. It’s providing red flags for parents. If your partner is embarrassed to sit with you during the game, that should be a red flag for you. If you’re spending all of your free time talking about who won the last game, that should be a red flag. If you’re finding yourself really stressed about whether your kid’s team is going to win, that should be a red flag. If your kid is not eating or sleeping well because they are stressed about performing well on a team they are on, that’s a red flag. And I know some of the good sports organizations do provide information for coaches around working with parents, and that can be really helpful.
GAZETTE: I wonder if you think the notion of winning is just so ingrained in our culture, in our history, in the story of our nation’s founding, that’s it going to be impossible to change?
WEISSBOURD: I think we’re out of balance. If you look throughout American history, this is what books like “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” are about. There has always been this tension between individualism and a strong collectivist ethic in America, a strong sense of nationalism and community, a strong sense of responsibility for our neighbors. In many eras of this country it was mothers’ primary responsibility to prepare children to be good citizens — it should have been fathers’ too. Schools and most colleges in this country were founded primarily to cultivate ethical character. That is no longer true of parents, schools, or universities. And in our research data when we ask kids “What’s most important to you?” they are far more likely to say achievement than caring. And they are far more likely to think their parents value achievement over caring. I don’t think that was true in other times in our history, based on what I hear from child historians. There was this ethic of sacrifice in homes and schools that you don’t see nearly as much anymore. Robert Putnam’s work is about this decline in communal connection and so, in a sense, is Sara Konrath’s work on declines in empathy. I don’t want to overstate it because I still think there are strong collective impulses in America. People still believe in community, but I do think we’re out of balance.
GAZETTE: Does religion have a role to play?
WEISSBOURD: I don’t want to make a claim, pro or con, for any particular religion, but I think in good religious practices there are communities of adults who stand for ethical values, who engage kids in ethical questions. There is an ethic of sacrifice; there are rituals of gratitude. There are coming-of-age ceremonies like confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs, where people are asked to think about their obligations to their communities. There is a fusion of a moral life and a spiritual life, the sense that you have obligations to your ancestors and to your descendants. There’s a lot about our responsibility to humanity more generally and the importance of giving and sacrifice. I’m not saying we should all become more religious, but I do think we should really think about how we reproduce these aspects of religion in secular life, including in sports. We need to think about how we create a strong ethic of care and responsibility for the community and how we cultivate the hardest forms of empathy and care: care when you’re angry at people, care when you are in competition with people. In my book “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development,” I talk about how sports is this time when you collide with intense feelings, with yourself, and with other people. Sports also gives you an opportunity to rehearse how you work through those feelings constructively.
This interview was edited for clarity and condensed for length.