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When parents behave like children

For 6,000 children in West Palm Beach, Fla., the new year could bring welcome change at youth sporting events. If all goes as a local athletic association plans, there will be no more loudmouth parents on the sidelines, yelling at coaches, bullying players, and taking their children's ballgames too seriously.

Beginning Jan. 1, parents of the children, who range in age from 5 to 18, must take an hour-long sportsmanship course. The ethics program, called Parents Alliance for Youth Sports, costs $5 and explains the roles and responsibilities of parents of young athletes. If parents refuse, their children will be barred from playing. Parents will be asked to sign an 11-point code of ethics, promising to "encourage good sportsmanship" and demonstrate "positive support" for players, coaches, and officials.

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Bring out the cheerleaders to applaud the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association, which is sponsoring the program, and the National Alliance for Youth Sports, which developed it. The course has been used elsewhere in the country, but this is the first time it is mandatory.

Teaching good sportsmanship counts as one important part of the training parents are supposed to give children. But as longstanding stereotypes of overbearing Little League parents attest, student athletic fields sometimes serve as a place where children demonstrate more maturity than adults, and where offspring could teach parents a lesson or two.

Who are the grown-ups? Who are the children? Increasingly, generational confusion and role reversals are spilling over into other areas of life as well. While some parents exert wrongful authority on the playing field, others meekly cave in and relinquish their legitimate parental voices elsewhere. Sportsmanship is not the only area in which some parents might benefit from a guiding hand or two.

Consider the mixed messages both generations receive from television. Advertisers know a clever marketing ploy when they see one. Playing on role-reversal themes, they increasingly cast even young children in authoritative roles in commercials, turning them into miniature adults - all-knowing, serious, supremely confident, pitching a variety of products to grown-up buyers. The same kind of pint-size characters show up in sitcoms, spawning further confusion as adult actors defer to children.

Such generational twists also get played out in real life. From suburban supermarkets to clothing stores, appliance centers, and real estate offices, the voices of even very young children ring out with strong opinions about the brands and styles they want their parents to buy - even, in some cases, choosing where the family will live. To the delight of marketers and the dismay of some child-rearing authorities, parents increasingly defer to the choices made by their tiny shopping companions.

Talk about role reversal!

Parents today face a daunting task in dealing with the conflicting messages the larger culture sends about everything from parenting to consumerism. But perhaps the sportsmanship training the parents in West Palm Beach will soon receive could be used as a model for other short courses to help parents demonstrate "positive support" for their children in a variety of situations. Title it "Playing Fair as Parents," or, "Letting Children be Children, on and off the Playing Field."

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Restoring better balance to family roles could bring multiple rewards. Encouraging parental respect for children's efforts in sporting events, for example, can only heighten children's respect for their parents' role as parents. What could be fairer for both generations?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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