With only one cable-connected television in the house and not much interest, I generally let the choice of programming to others in the family. But my one gotta-see-this show is Lifetime’s Dance Moms, a "reality" show that sends up the thoroughly over-the-top behavior of hovering stage moms who’ve invested everything in helping their pre-teen daughters achieve their dreams of becoming dancers. It’s the latest installment in television’s Women-Behaving-Badly programming genre and is yet another shot at mothers who’ve opted to stay out of the workforce. However, it’s insanely entertaining and in it’s way, does raise questions about parental expectations, behaviors and how we should handle ourselves with kids and coaches.
As a full disclosure, let me state that two of our three kids have been on stage and one is now starting to toy with the notion of the theatre as a career. We’ve taken kids to auditions and the one child has had two years of dance classes, so my wife and I have seen examples of parents with their ears to the closed audition doors. When my wife took Middle to a theatre audition and saw the behavior of some of the parents there, she quietly told him that she’d stay in her seat and be cool and he thanked her. There’s no reason that our child’s reaction is any different from any other child, who’s typically embarrassed simply by the fact that their father is breathing so loudly.
Going to games and performances isn’t being a stage-parent
A friend’s daughter has a good role in the middle school play, which has only two performances in one weekend. She contacted me last week and asked – since she referred to me as an "experienced stage-dad" – whether we went to only one performance or more than one. My thought was that she appeared to be concerned about being perceived as a stage-mother; my response was that if was only two shows, see them both since she wasn’t likely to see her in that role again. Frankly, seeing your kid in a public event – game, concert, play, whatever – is something that parents should be doing and isn’t even close to being a helicopter parent.
There are excellent reasons to not go to something, such as work or competing kids’ events. If the child is in a theatre production with several weeks of performances, even reduced-rate tickets are cost-prohibitive. But the great majority of kids want their parents and family there, so long as they behave and that is the issue with the stage-parent. Being a responsible, caring parent means that you should support the kid as she explores new interests; it lets you see how she’s developing and frankly, it’s fun.
Consider the level of the activity and the coach’s qualifications
The great majority of kids will roll in and out of any number of different activities and with such a wide variety offered, the lion’s share of the work will fall to volunteer parents. There are always coaches at the various levels who’ve never played the game and if these folks weren’t interested, then the activities simply wouldn’t happen. They’re managing things on the run with their own families and work and they simply don’t deserve the crap that they’re something dished. If your kid is playing baseball at the 8 year old level, then you’d better be ready to step up and consider coaching yourself if you don’t like the way that a coach is handling things.
That changes however, as the kids advance and really take to a particular activity. In the Lifetime show, the dance instructor is a professional who requires a contract from each family and is charging them thousands of dollars annually for the highest level of instruction. It’s at this point that the parent, as the employer of the independent contractor, does have some claim upon how things are being done. This isn’t the same thing as my hiring a guy to do some construction work; he might have the expertise that I don’t have, but he’ll work solely for me and any issues that we have will be solely between us. A coach of any kind is in a more difficult position since that person is not only responsible for one client, but multiple clients simultaneously and in the same venue. The rancid icing at the top of this cake is that the parents who are paying for this level of attention and expertise are focused heavily on their own child’s development and the potential for personality and interest clash is huge. Potential scholarships, parental aspirations and dreams of the big time make for a potently combustible blend of ambition on the sidelines.
Managing the parental behavior
If you’re at this level of investment, the reality is that you do have a vested interest in the outcome and some word in how things happen. You’re hiring the coach for expertise and from that standpoint, you’re best served by just shutting up and letting it happen. But there are other factors in play as well – personality,perceived or real favoritism and parental objectivity. Some folks simply think that every scribble drawn by Junior is someday bound for Sothebys. The issue then becomes how you manage potential conflict; we embarrass our kids simply by breathing the same air as their peers and they’ll probably also possess some loyalty to that coach. After all, if you were so damned smart, you’d be doing this instead of the coach.
One of the repeated behaviors seen on Dance Moms is the interruption of the practice by one or another mother who’s torqued about something with her child. The mother enters the practice studio as cameras roll and proceeds to question something and the coach responds. The kids are left there to stew in embarrassment and a burning desire to smack mom with a tire iron. While this is reality television, which means that everything is played to the hilt, there are situations in which a parent interrupts a practice or event to publicly register their complaints with the coach; when Youngest signs up for Little League baseball, we parents are obligated to sign an agreement outlining our behavior at practices and games. Just to show that the parental behavior also flows in the other direction, to the child, our local pool decided to make all parents and guardians watch the swimming lessons from beyond the fences several years ago when a mother – angry at her recalcitrant daughter – walked over to the child and threw her bodily into the pool.
While we’re protective of our kids, it’s incumbent upon us to be even more in control of ourselves in these situations. The angry parent will not only offend the person who’s taking on the obligation of working with his child, but will likely also offend other parents as well as embarrass the child in question. Hold off until afterwards and handle things privately and if there’s no progress with whatever situation, then decide if you need to elevate it to the next level, such as the local league or governing body. If the coach is paid, as the dance instructor, then you simply have to decide if the child really is being served best there and if not, go elsewhere. The last thing that you need is the reputation of a dance mom diva.