As kids grow, parents lucky enough to be able to offer their children opportunities start to feel unlucky in the face of increasingly exhausting schedule of plays, concerts, art shows, and performances. Attendance is expected. Instagram engagement is expected. Eagerness to put in the time and effort to show up and clap is expected. But is that reasonable and is it worth it? It’s fair to wonder if the investment required to watch a cameo in a play about eating vegetables is really paying off and, if so, how.
Fortunately, the academics are on it. And they’ve got something very, very close to a consensus answer.
“It’s incredibly important for a child to feel the support of parents in the audience when they’re performing,” says Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of counseling and family therapy master’s programs at LaSalle University. “They put effort in to be able to get to that place, so it’s a reward and recognition of their work.”
Torney suggests that when a parent is not in attendance, the child feels the absence deeply. She notes that her therapist’s couch is often occupied by adults still stung by empty seats. That’s because every new visit begins with a question about parental relationships. “It’s uncanny how often they say ‘Well, yeah, it was close, but my mom or dad never really came to my events and I felt that,’” Torney says.
Make no mistake, those feelings linger. They are expressed by 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds alike, meaning the disappointment calcifies. On the other hand, encouragement is also cherished over the long term. “Support is clearly evident to the child and lasts beyond the current moment,” says Torney.
Indeed, studies have shown a tenuous connection between adolescent depression and unsupportive parents, but the study of this phenomenon is in its infancy. Most studies that report a link between the two simply ask kids how supportive they feel their parents are. That means results could show that unsupportive parents are contributing to teen angst, but may also simply reflect the fact that depression messes with how teens see the world.
Either way, it’s unlikely a parent would want their kid to think of them as unsupportive. But the danger exists, particularly for dads who may unintentionally—or for cultural reasons—place a greater sense of worth in their kids sporting events, rather than school-led cultural performances. This can get particularly ugly when a parent bows out because “at least one of us will be there.” Not having both parents with their butts in the auditorium can cause a kid to skew their understanding of who is actually there for them. It’s unlikely a child will see his or her parents as a collective.
“Both parents are as important and both should be united in their approach to the kids,” explains Torney. “If one parent goes it’s kind of saying, ‘I think you’re important and the other doesn’t.’”
That said, Torney understands that there are situations when a parent may legitimately not be able to attend. But that doesn’t mean the perception of lack of support is inevitable. The important part is that the kid is aware that the parent understands the significance of the event.
“Let your presence be felt in some way,” says Torney. This might include buying a flower or a card that the attending parent can present to the kid after the performance. The absent parent might even watch a recording of the performance with their kid at home and talk about how they were feeling. Torney notes that this allows the child to confirm that the event was meaningful.
“If you handle it in such a way that the child feels the support, whether you were there or not, that memory remains as if the parent were there,” says Torney.
Which means that, yes, the packed schedule is worth it–for the kid. It also means that the most effective way to reclaim a schedule is to lobby for fewer events. Not attending remains an option, but a deeply problematic one.