To Watch Sports With Kids, Adult Fans Need to Calm Down

Learn to scream on the inside then talk to the kid about strategy.

Watching sports with a preschooler can be a great bonding experience. It’s an opportunity for parents to share time with a child, teach them about the rules of a game, and instill the values of being a gracious winner and loser. But it can also be a tough experience for parents unused to keeping their emotions in check while watching basketball, football, or soccer. That’s why it’s important for a parent to prepare to be mindful and have a few talking points prepared for when someone scores and they lose their damn mind. The goal? Getting kids excited about sports without allowing fandom to become an excuse for bad behavior. No one wants to raise a hooligan (except maybe some dads in Philadelphia).

“Watching sports with children isn’t just watching sports. It’s communicating values, attitudes ideas about sportsmanship,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, sports psychologist and author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. “If you get upset once in a while, that’s ok. If there’s persistent overinvestment, your kid is going to pick up on that. If you’re a rabid fan, that fanaticism is going to be handed down to your children, just like every other attitude and value you espouse to your family.”

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Parents should treat watching a game as an opportunity to show kids good manners in competition. But that’s a lot easier said than done when dad’s alma mater is about to flop out of March Madness or an NFL referee is making an incomprehensible call. And — as if that wasn’t hard enough — Taylor says it’s also important for a parent to praise the opponent when they perform well. That’s a daunting task, especially where deep-rooted sports rivalries are concerned. Especially when it means praising the winners when the favorite team loses.

“On a day-to-day basis, that loss has zero impact on your life,” Taylor says. “But the message your kid is getting is ‘oh my gosh, this game is really important to dad or mom.’”

The negative impacts on extremely emotional sports viewing are myriad. The most obvious are unhealthy attitudes about competition. Kids end up talking trash or, way worse, getting way too down on themselves after a loss. If kids become overly focused on results too early, it may poison sports for them. Caring too much can turn into caring not at all — people are smart about protecting themselves that way.

“If you swear, trash talk, get upset, you’re modeling for your child that not only should you hate this other team — which, to the child, is just a bunch of guys and girls in funny uniforms — but beyond that you’re showing that when you don’t like something, it’s ok to be rude, disrespectful, angry, and mean about it,” says Taylor.

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And at the very worst, children could view a parent’s reaction to the sports they watch as a preview of how the parent will react when the child underperforms in their own sporting endeavors. “Here’s the scary thing: what happens if your child starts to think ‘oh my gosh, what happens if I lose at tee-ball, or I drop the football in flag football: Are my parents going to get upset?’” Taylor posits.

How to Watch Sports with a Preschooler

  • Keep your cool when things are going poorly for your team, kids will pick up and sometimes mimic your anger and frustration.
  • Find something good to say about the opposing team, even if your favorite team is losing.
  • Talk to your child about a player that has both athleticism and good sportsmanship.
  • At live games, point out those individuals who are enjoying the game and behaving appropriately.
  • Take kids to games where other children are playing to show them what’s possible.
  • Don’t get too upset when a team loses. A kid needs to know that losing is a part of life and it’s not the end of the world.

Parents, fortunately, have more advanced brains than children and can control their emotions to a certain degree in order to model positive behavior. But watching sports with a group or at a stadium is something else altogether. Yet this, too, can be a teachable moment, one where a parent can point out good and bad behavior and show children the right and wrong way to become excited about the game.

“You can explain to them, especially if they’re very young, that when you go to baseball games or other games, people can get excited,” Taylor says. “The ultimate messenger is you. Even if the world around you in the stands is going batty, if you’re cool calm and collected or reasonably fired up, they’re going to get that message.”

Another factor to consider is picking positive role models in the ranks of the teams. Often, Taylor explains, great players behave badly, and kids engage in hero worship to the degree that they’ll emulate their favorite players, leading to bad behavior on and off the field. That means parents should take time to cultivate interest in players who exhibit good sportsmanship in addition to athletic skill. (The easiest solution here is just to have all kids — and everyone generally — just root for Lebron all the time.)

“If you as parents don’t communicate healthy messages about who they might want to root for and why they might want to root for them, then they’re gonna get their messages about what’s cool from our sports culture, and our sports culture is toxic,” says Taylor. “It tends to aggrandize the worst kinds of players: the ones who do the touchdown dances, the ones who taunt. The camera tends to focus on the bad behavior.”

Sports fandom for the very young isn’t limited to the big leagues, either. Taylor suggests taking kids to watch other children engage in a sporting activity, whether it’s a tee-ball game in the park, sitting courtside at a high school basketball game, or sitting in the stands of a youth soccer team.

“If you can, take kids to a high school game where they can see what’s possible… you might create in your child a tremendous passion that drives them to be the best they can be,” Taylor says. “Passion for sports is a wonderful antidote to a lot of the problems we have in a society where kids are doing things that are unhealthy because they’re not doing something that’s healthier.”

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