I’m reading a really great book for my book club (The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, in case you’re curious) and came across a passage that struck a nerve with me:
[Daughter] Madeleine had been trying to beat [Father] Alton her entire life without success. This was even more infuriating because she was better than he was, at this point. But whenever she took a set from Alton he started intimidating her, acting mean, disputing calls, and her game fell apart. Madeleine was worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men. As a result, Madeleine’s tennis matches against Alton had assumed such outsize personal significance for her that she got tight whenever she played him, with predictable results. And Alton still gloated when he won, still got all rosy and jiggly, as if he’d bested her by sheer talent.
What is it about parents and kids and competition?
I used to play sets with my son. But, instead of focusing on the moment and trying to play my best tennis, I was always thinking in the back of my mind about whether it was better for him to beat me or better for me to beat him. Whenever we played right before one of his tournaments, my subconscious would take over and cause me to make silly errors so that he would win. Somehow, I reasoned, this was good for his confidence. I realize now how misplaced my logic was. Victory is only sweet when you’ve earned it.
Soon enough, though, my son started beating me all on his own, 6-0, repeatedly. And I was okay with that. More than okay, actually. I wanted my son to progress to the point where he was beating me on a regular basis. He was working hard on his tennis – much harder than I ever did – and beating his mother was part of the natural order of the tennis universe (see From Generation to Generation).
So, what is up with the Alton character in my book? Don’t we all want our children to achieve more than we did? Don’t we all want them to be successful? Don’t we all – when push comes to shove – want our kids to be better than us?
Click here to take the USTA/USA Tennis Parent Behavior Assessment
When I read the passage in Eugenides’ book, I realized that the answer to all those questions is NO. Some parents can’t handle their children out-pacing them. Some parents always want to be The Best, no matter what. Some parents will constantly belittle or berate their children in order to keep them down. I wonder if they think about how that affects their child in the long run? I wonder how it DOES affect their child in the long run?
According to the USTA-funded study, Understanding the Role Parents Play in
Junior Tennis Success, “one does not have to be a pushy, overbearing parent to
facilitate tennis talent development and several cases showed that doing so, while leading to a high level of performance, results in a damaged parent-child relationship, psychological issues with the player and, ironically, motivation and performance issues.”
Further, as we would expect, a 2004 study by Eccles found that children who perceive parental involvement as encouraging and supportive are more likely to have a positive attitude toward sport and perceive themselves as more competent. On the other hand, children who perceive parental involvement as negative may have lower perceptions of competence and lose interest in sports.
I think about Madeleine’s character, and I feel so sad that her dad, the guy who is supposed to love her unconditionally and shape her future relationships with men, felt the need to exert his macho in such a negative way on the tennis court which ruined her ability to enjoy this great sport of ours.
Playing with our kids is supposed to be fun, joyful, positive. And when our child progresses to the point of surpassing our own skills . . . well, to me, that’s sublime! I suspect that most, if not all, of you feel the same way. What a loss for those who don’t . . .
This will be my last post until after the holidays. Wishing you a very Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!