RECENTLY, in a baseball game between 7-year-olds, umpired by a 13-year-old, a dispute broke out over an officiating call. Things devolved into a fistfight between parents of the opposing teams. Perhaps we should not be shocked; after all, this is sadly nothing new.
But we are shocked, because yelling and angry confrontations, let alone physical violence, at a ball game run against the very core of what the vast majority of us view as civilized behavior. And as we have seen — hopefully just by reading about it — time and again, the workplace and society in general are not immune to acts of aggression, rage and violence either.
But what is a root cause of this kind of unbridled anger? In many cases, it is insufficient self-definition. In the case of Little League parental conflicts, parents might try to compensate for their lower self-esteem by over-identifying with their children. The thinking is: “I want my kid on the traveling team. I will get kudos for my kid (and then I get them for myself, too).” With that reasoning, any official’s call against their child is an attack on the parents’ very personhood. A visceral response bypasses intellectual reasoning, and a fight ensues. Emotion, not rational thought, rules.
Many parents wear their children’s successes as medals. Check the bumper stickers in the parking lot: “My child is an honor student at (school name).” While the intent might be good, there is a risk it will pressure the student beyond any benefit. The message being sent is “Look at what my kid did!” Largely, this is a continuation of society’s reliance upon the admiration of others to satisfy a desire to “feel good” about oneself, something also very prevalent in social media. I have defined this as Psychological Fusion: when we allow other people to “make us feel.”
This same dynamic is at play in wanting to have the approval of significant others. This drive appears in such phenomena as “helicopter parenting,” wherein mom or dad journeys to school to make certain the offspring is graded properly (i.e., highly). Once confined to making sure junior was fairly treated in the new school or grade level, this hovering protection recently raised its head in the high-stakes world of gaining entry into a top, highly-competitive university. That widespread scandal had all kinds of cheating attached to it, all related to gaining an unfair advantage. Tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars were being tossed about by parents trying to give an edge to their offspring. The parents likely dismissed criticism about these activities by rationalizing that this is just the way the world works. This is exactly the way the world does not work.
At the heart of the matter is a preoccupation with the valuation of others, including peers and those perceived to be of greater standing. The consequence of this thinking is the regrettable conclusion that one’s value is dependent upon the acceptance, approval and admiration of others. One, then, is susceptible to being defined as worthy or unworthy by others who may, in fact, be playing the same game. Too many are allowing other people to define their worth, leaving them vulnerable to feeling wronged by perceived criticism, even by the umpire of a kid’s game.
One approach taken from family systems psychotherapy is to teach oneself and those under our influence how to better self-define. I describe this as the “I Define Me” approach, where a person takes a careful inventory of his or her assets, as well as shortcomings. When going through this exercise with sports teams, the effort is made to take the spotlight off the role of being just players. The job of being pitcher or hitter now is put into a more appropriate perspective, as athletes consider the fullness of their activities in life.
Parents can help themselves grow in this area, as well. Mothers and fathers can be a major force in changing a child’s perspective. A well-defined parent could de-emphasize what had been a source of, perhaps, too much pride. For example, the focus of the post-game discussion might become “How did you enjoy the game today?” rather than “How many hits or strike-outs did you get?” The value of the child to the parent shifts to one of acceptance — without any contingencies. This is not a call for mediocrity. It is natural for children to want to improve; this is an essential part of self-motivation. Feedback is needed, in a non-controlling way, in order for the young athlete to grow.
Don’t we all wish the parents involved in youth league fights, and others, including individuals who have engaged in workplace altercations (or worse), had had the opportunity to address what might be a root cause of much anger by strengthening their own self-definition?