Becoming the Sports Parent I Wished I’d Had

My mother raised five kids on food stamps, and didn’t have the luxury of time to cheer at games. I might have been a bit overzealous in response.

Comments: 50

  1. What a great, thoughtful and honest article. A good reminder on many levels, and a beacon of hope to those who think that their struggles won't amount to anything. Your mother left a legacy, and she would be so proud of you.

  2. Thanks. A great reminder of how many of got to where we are today. Not always clean and tidy, usually with an element of sacrifice and compromise that's too often forgotten.

  3. Great article, I feel that the 5 of us learned a lot about life and how to handle the issues that you face as you get older. I know that the way we were raised helped me with the adversity that I've faced. Even though we didn't have much monitarily or emotionally, we learned so much buy watching how mom worked threw the problems. Though woman, I bet she would have loved going to our kids events, she sacrificed so much!!

  4. So beautiful that you and your siblings appreciated all your mother did for you. Beautiful article!

  5. Wonderful story, I have tears in my eyes.

  6. What is wonderful that despite your embarrassment, you are able to respect you mom for all that she did.

  7. Too many people nowadays think that going to their children's games and even practices is a really important part of parenting. They structure their work hours, meals, vacations, etc. around these events. I'm not sure it's all that healthy for the kids to have their parents there so much. Your mom knew her priorities. Brava!

  8. Well said. I hope our children's generation has stories like this but I expect the evolution of our culture makes them less common.

  9. A moving must read for all generations!

  10. Thanks for sharing this story, which rings very true. Both the embarrassment and resentment in the moment, and your understanding and appreciation as an adult.

  11. Beautiful story John, thank you.
    My parents attended none of my games or matches through middle and high school and showed scant interest in any of my sports. I used to ride my bike to football practice with my helmet balanced on one side of the handle bars and shoulder pads on the other. I vowed to support my kids as much as possible and coached them in soccer, baseball and basketball for many years before they moved on to HS/club sports where I've become a supportive fan. Two years ago I introduced my daughter to rowing over the summer as a lark, while preparing her and a team for one more rec soccer season. At the end of the summer she was invited to try out for a competitive club rowing team, but the tryouts were over the course of the start of soccer season, one that was likely her last, one that I could say good bye to coaching her slowly over the course of practices and game in the fall.
    "Casey you know we have soccer practice and two games during the club tryouts," I said to her. "I know dad, is it ok if I miss them?"
    "Sure, but you know that if you make the team then you'll have to drop out of soccer."
    "I know dad, do you think that will be ok?"
    "Sure, darling, if that's what you want, I think it's great."
    Just like that it ended, she made the team, is totally immersed in club crew and never played soccer again.
    I didn't have that last ride home after her final soccer game but will not let that moment pass again when her club crew career ends . . .

  12. Beautiful article. I appreciate the author's dedication to learning from his childhood and moving toward what he wanted for his children. It really has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with being conscious, aware and present. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Thanks for the memories, my mom and dad gave me the ok to working my summers to pay tuition to the local prep school to play football there. I don't know what gave me better satisfaction paying my yearly tuition the first day of school or playing for a great school,

  14. Great poignant piece! Very moving.

  15. Back when I was a kid--and I'm a little older than John--it simply wasn't that common for parents to feel that they had to show up for every game. Mine never showed up and I never expected them to. Of course, what his mom did to him would have horrified me too. But it also speaks to what poverty was like then: many children were expected to work in those days in order to contribute to the family income (and that's still the case for some children today). My parents were pretty lackadaisical about my summer job in high school. I was on my own for that as well and my job search for that was just like that of my (also white) friends. We walked up and down the boardwalk in the spring asking at every store until we found one that would take us. And most typically it would be one owned by someone from our own religion or ethnicity. Black kids need not apply.

  16. it simply wasn't that common for parents to feel that they had to show up for every game.

    My mother showed up for some of my younger brother's little league games, although often it was mainly to drive home behind his bike in the dusk. (The rest of us avoided sports.) The family never even knew he was on the school track team until his doctor told him a knee problem meant he had to quit.

    Frankly, I never wanted my parents at school functions. They loyally came to every elementary school program, but I not only didn't care if they came but cried and pleaded with them to get me out of it! School was my world, not theirs, and I was much more comfortable if I didn't have to try to juggle their ideas of appropriate behavior with my classmates' ideas.

  17. John,
    You hit it out of the park. Your humanity, artistry along with the deep emotional truth shined through. Was moved to tears. I love how you tied your emotional experience with tremendous compassion towards your mom's situation and most of all celebrated her legacy of hard work and yet made a conscious choice to parent your daughter's in a way that uplifted them.
    You brought in all the joys and challenges of being human and the herculean effort it takes of being a great parent. What a delicious jewel of a piece. Brava! We want more!

  18. Nice to hear about a parent who values theatre as much as sports -- cheers!, from one to another!

  19. Moved to tears. Thank you John.

  20. What a great article. My favorite part was the last line. I never thought to thank my parents for showing up. They were there for most games, and seemed to have as good of a time as I did kibbitzing in the stands, or when my dad coached some of my baseball teams.
    In fact, long after I grew up, when they had a shortage of little league managers in town, my dad volunteered and coached for another couple of years. He seemed to enjoy it just as much then.

  21. Thanks for sharing

  22. Beautiful piece. I choked up at the last line.

  23. Nuckel, you've got me crying at my desk at work!

    I hope your coach and teammates came to admire your Mom's determination as much as your readers do. And wish those other families had at least driven you home from the game...

    Great story, thanks so much.

  24. What a wonderful story. How hard this Mother worked to provide for her 5 children. It sounds she did the best she possibly could given a very difficult situation. All 5 siblings graduated college, that is impressive! I worry about today's children where everything is handed to them. Parents need to do less for their children, let them struggle, let them fail. Teach them to cook, clean, mow the lawn, hang the Christmas lights on the trees outside the house, rake the leaves, do their own laundry. Build their resilience, tenacity and self-reliance. (Last, week there was an article in the NYTimes about unicycles in Japan, they are in every school. Why are American kids so sheltered and protected? At end of 5th grade I bought my son a unicycle. He is the only one in our neighborhood that owns one.) I would say in the long run the author is lucky that his Mother gave him such a real world education. Thanks for writing this.

  25. Contrarian voice here, I was also a HS athlete, 1960s, zero parents in attendance, yawn

    The opening story, "COME HERE NOW," is a lot more than "hey there is a job for you, come and get it, right now, or lose it"

    rather, to me is a grim and joyless mother, who cannot wait 45 seconds to let her son finish half-game, and who is unaware of the embarrassment factor, and likely there was a history of such ...awkward... exchanges,

    and who in my view relishes in the crushing of his spirit (as in expunging frivolity as we face the serious business of life)
    =
    "I'll GIVE you something to complain about" -

    indeed she did, as we see 39 years later, wounds still painful, not healed,

    scar tissue, is tougher and numb-er, not even scar tissue here, a living wound

    =
    she may well have internalized into him some grim gaunt goal-directed parental persona and THAT is good legacy

    and parents ALWAYS embarrass children, merely by existing

    but this story left its mark, and a bad one

    =
    an aside

    when i visit the kids' HS events

    (1) they say - 'why are you here,' they are perfectly happy for me to NOT be there, one of them was in HS Debate (high prestige in that school), I attend for a while, she practiced her arguments on me, I thought to witch, I actually thought I made that one self-conscious (hey too bad, suck it up)

    (2) the notion of kids thanking parents for showing up, makes me cringe, it is like thanking parents for paying rent

    =
    color me curmudgeon

  26. Fortress America: Of course, you're entitled to your point of view, but I couldn't disagree with you more.

    Thanks for sharing your story, John!

  27. Fortress, I think you are too hard on the mother (relishing crushing his spirit). She may not have been in possession of the best social skills. When you are a breath away from sinking financially, and a job comes in for a capable body, you jump. Sports are a past time. Jobs, education, college -- they are the lifeline. Her actions were about keeping her family together. We all have scar tissue. But to "raise five college graduates out of the welfare apartments" is a freaking feat.

  28. Fortress, you sound rather grim yourself! I have two high school athletes, and while my husband and I don't attend every single contest, we do go to most of them. Why? To show our teens that their efforts are worth watching, that their sport is supported in the household, to cheer when they score and be quiet when they don't. Because we're unable to go to every meet or game, it's appreciated by the kids when we do. And unlike you, I do not cringe when they thank me for coming...quit the opposite. They're simply acknowledging the fact that during my Saturday, I stood in the cold to watch a ski race or sat in the gym to watch a basketball game. I can't imagine that gratefulness on from a child can be seen as a negative.

    I also think it's a bit difficult to get inside the mind of a mother who's been beaten and is juggling five children. How gracefully might I have called my child out of the game? Thankfully, I don't have to wonder...but it's not our place to judge, is it?

    A beautiful article, John!

  29. This is very moving. At the right time, it could be a powerful gift to let your daughter read this. Understanding and appreciating the stories of the sacrifices and character of our family members grounds us anywhere we may go in life. Thanks for sharing yours.

  30. I love this story for many different reasons. Thanks so much for sharing! I have sent a link to my three children, all grown now. I was a single parent and they were all athletes. The juggling of both time and money was often a real struggle but I did my best to make sure they had the opportunity to participate and compete in the sport of their choice. I think we all learned a lot from it plus we have some awesome memories. So glad you learned to appreciate your mom.

  31. Great article.
    Makes me think of my own youth where my widowed working mom made a huge effort to come to all of our games/races. She too, screamed from the bleachers - only to cheer us on.
    Always appreciative of her effort to be there - left a lasting impression that has impacted the way that I parent.

  32. Your mom did a good job.

  33. Growing up with a single mum and not much money, somehow she found ways to ensure that we could try and play the sports we wanted. I had 4 siblings and all but the youngest managed to graduate from university - the youngest chose played college basketball, but followed different path; she has found the lack of a degree has limited some of her career paths.
    Until she passed away in 2014, our mum attended as many of our sporting events as she could. She had 11 grandchildren playing various levels of soccer and would have her list to try and get to as many games as possible each weekend. She was a constant cheerleader at track and field meets as well as any other events she could find - music, singing, acting, etc.
    In retrospect, I think she was always trying to make up for the fact that our dad rarely attended our events (except basketball), while he managed to get to most of his wife's kid's events. He and his wife are immensely proud of my younger stepbrother, who played university basketball and went on to play professionally for many years overseas. Whenever our dad mentioned our stepbrother's accomplishments, our mum would inevitably point out his own children's and grandchildren's accomplishments.
    I have always tried to be there for my own kids in the way that I wished my dad had been there for me; I hope that my kids will appreciate that fact.

  34. Thanks for your article. Your story resonated with mine. I used to envy my friends' parents who visited Wrestling matches and talked to coaches and other parents. But I realized, just like your story, this experienced helped us to trace which parents we wanted to become.

  35. Your version of sports parent is compelling. Some of us are still scratching out heads as to the wisdom of all our efforts to this extra curricular juggernaut. The whole notion of team sports as the be all and end all of things is problematic at best. It would take years if not millennia to coherently explore the pros and cons. We do have nice ribbons and trophies in various boxes as shrines to our children's efforts.

  36. Thanks, great little article. It took me back way back ! I played lots of sports as a child, wanting to to fit in, and just be a kid, in a world of erratic adults. I had the kind of Dad who parked the car 400 yards from the baseball field, and "watched" from there, or who said about my ice hockey passion "you'll never play in the NHL". Looking back now, and after having coached my own kids, I see a frustrated man. He kind of missed out on raising his kids. On the bright side, definitey not a helicopter parent.

  37. Tell your grandchildren after their games, that you love watching them play sports with their friends........and nothing more. Just showing up when you can is plenty. They will realize this down the road......and that is good enough!

  38. After every game, win or lose, I would ask my son if he had fun? I never cared about the outcome, I cared about the journey. When he didn't have fun we changed sports or activities.

  39. A touching article. Thank you for sharing. I have long wondered if there is an inverse relationship between childhood struggles or success, and adult struggles or success.

  40. I like my children only participated in activities where there were no parent spectators: Debate, Model UN. Mock Trial. I certainly understand why someone would want to participate in sports. But I have never and will never understand why anyone needs to watch.

  41. I am about the same age as the author and my middle-class parents rarely showed up to any of my activities, not because they had to work, but because it wasn't done. We understood that school and its related activities were my world, not theirs.

    With my kids, however, the pressure to show up for everything, including volunteering for unnecessary activities at their schools, was oppressive.

  42. Wow. Your mother was a true saint. She didn't come up in the suburbs, over-extending herself with kids stuff. With nearly a half dozen children, she didn't have this luxury. Yet, she raised 5 college grads with one who was able to tell her story in the NYT. I know it's hard but never be ashamed of this woman. She hustled despite her circumstances. And for that, she should always be honored.

  43. My parents, hard working European immigrants never showed up to my little league games etc because they didn't understand baseball and as one commentator wrote, this was basically a kids world - at least in the 1960's...I was happy they didn't show up- the American kids often had parents who showed up and yelled at everyone, coaches, umpires snd kids. Awful. Felt sorry for them!

  44. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for being there for every single one of my soccer games growing up, for driving me to and from every one of my practices, meetings and events, for teaching me the importance of commitment and showing up on time. Thank you for teaching me to always be "first on line," for encouraging me to chase down my dreams, to always ask, "Why not me?" Without the endless support of my parents, I would not be as I am today: a varsity athlete at a prestigious college, who is unafraid to voice her opinions and follow her dreams. I can only hope to emulate them when I become a parent myself. Thank you, Mom and Dad. I love you both so dearly.

  45. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. Thank you for sharing.

  46. Brought tears to my eyes. This is a lovely piece. Thank you.

  47. Awesome. Did your mom proud.

  48. You did it yourself, John Nuckel. Your mother's poor behavior did not give you your time with your daughters. It is despite that behavior that you became a good dad. Congrats and dont' give your mom the credit for your accomplishments.

  49. Hard to believe everyone is calling his mother a "saint" when it seems likely that she frequently struck her children.

    "If my mom had a catch phrase it would be, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

    If it were puppies she was hitting, I think more people would be up in arms. Kids, it's OK. She's still a saint.

  50. So now she's become someone who "frequently struck her children"? Typical NYT reader, projecting the worst, most judgmental opinion based on scant evidence.

    My mom also said "I'll give you something to cry about" -- and never hit us.

    You clearly missed the point of the article.