Maternal overprotection is lethal to boys and young men. As a coach I’ve seen a lot of this, so I want to give a glimpse into our minds—how we view such mothers, what this means for their young men, and how to avoid damaging a son with good intentions.
I teach boys, young men, and sometimes young women how to play soccer. After more than a decade of coaching, I can’t remember receiving disdainful and contemptuous words from one father. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been disagreements. It means most guys know how to treat another guy, something most of us learned on the playgrounds of our youth. Most guys know how to leave another man with his dignity intact.
Comparing my experiences with mothers to my experiences with fathers is remarkable. I’ve had fathers express concern about their kid’s playing time or treatment from other players. But the way they do it doesn’t make their son appear weak or needy in the eyes of everyone else. And they are civil—they stay in the realm of concern without crossing over into the swamp of overprotection.
Not so for what coaches call “Helicopter Moms,” who hover above their children in a near-constant state of anxiety; “Momma Bears,” those who are highly protective of their children and don’t care if they disparage others in the process; and “Grizzly Moms,” a highly dangerous breed who seem unwilling to stop at anything in getting their child what they want.
Helicopter Moms come with every season. In most cases, most of the time, they are helpful. Their sons usually do well in sports, though these boys sometimes lack a vital male energy (the ancient Greeks called it thumos—a tenacious, pugnacious, and animating spiritedness found more in men than women). I see these mothers asking their sons a lot of questions, and I see the boys trying to be kind in return, but also resenting such persistent doting and worry. The moms’ frenzied over-involvement seems to drain their sons of confidence and courage, two powerful benefits of thumos.
I’ve also noticed that Helicopter Moms either don’t have husbands or don’t have husbands who show up for their son’s games. These mothers are trying to be both parents, and I admire them for this. I can see how it hurts them when their sons try to push them away so they can enter and take part in the world of men.
Momma Bears have claws and use them, often behind the scenes. They verbally sucker-punch. They intend to ambush, to put me on my heels. They often begin with a false and misleading statement about me and then ask me to defend myself.
That’s an old ploy that I don’t bite on anymore. Without exception, Momma Bears have an inflated view of their child’s abilities, a view he sometimes adopts. You can tell after a while: These players tend to parrot words and ideas that aren’t common to their age. When they fail to dominate in a game like they’ve said they can, like their parents know they can, they say it wasn’t their doing—other players let them down or deliberately excluded them from the game’s normal flow. They believe they are being persecuted unfairly. A belief, I think, that comes directly from command central: Momma Bear’s mouth.
Momma Bears, of course, in no way represent all soccer moms. I’ve had great conversations with moms who disagree with me. But their approach is different. They aren’t out for a pound of my flesh, and they aren’t out to take all the bumps and bruises out of their kid’s life. More times than not, they want clarification and better communication.
The son of a Momma Bear deflates when she’s around. He looks at the ground. He lacks confidence. Whatever power he possessed before she showed up is gone, seeped into the patches of grass under his feet.
I have never punished a cub of a Momma Bear. I also don’t retaliate at players because of their parents, though I know coaches who do. Here’s something Momma Bears should know: Coaches talk. We warn each other about you, like signs in a campground revealing the presence of dangerous animals.
Sometimes your child won’t make a team because of you. For example, if he’s a “bubble” player—meaning a coach could go either way in keeping or cutting a player from a roster—and if he has a momma Bear behind him, he is most likely cut. Most coaches are volunteers. Why should they keep your kid and put up with you?
Cubs end up paying in other ways too. Because coaches are forced to walk on eggshells around Momma Bears, they often, sometimes unknowingly, marginalize their kids during practice so as to avoid any further contact with Mom. Or a coach with less backbone will over-favor the kid and give him more playing time than his skills should allow. His teammates notice, and this can set into motion a level of disdain the coach might not even sense, much less do anything about. The cub is losing friends through no fault of his own. It’s an ugly situation all the way around.
When I get an overprotected cub, my usual tasks are either (1) helping him see that he’s not as good as he (and she) thinks he is, or more commonly, (2) helping him see that he’s better than he currently realizes. Often my endeavor is to help him trust himself. I help him believe in himself by telling and showing him that I believe in him.
Grizzly Moms are unstoppable, rage-filled, even delusional. A Grizzly Mom will demand anything, no matter how farfetched, to give her son the advantages presumed to be his birthright. The only words that appease her are “Yes, ma’am,” and the only words that put her on her heels are “restraining order.” I have yet to see one show affection to her husband, who is usually in the background minding his manners, hoping to stay out of the way. Healthy women stay clear of Grizzly Moms, and they pity their sons.
One season I had numerous players tell me they were going to quit the team if a certain boy was allowed to stay on it. I saw what he did during practice and games, and it would take your breath away. His mouth was filthy; he said some of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard. Sometimes other parents were in tears over what he said.
I called his home to tell the family of my decision to remove him. Unfortunately, his mom answered, and I quickly figured out the origin of his attitude. I would never accept that kind of abuse now, but then I thought I was obligated to hear her out. Her profane, hateful words flew screaming into my ear; I had to hold the phone away.
She wouldn’t listen to reason. When I told her that if we lost all the players ready to leave, there wouldn’t be enough to play a legal game, she told me to contact the league and demand an exception. (Every Momma Bear and Grizzly Mom requires special rules and privileges for her son, whether or not it tramples other kids in the process.) I hung up after repeatedly trying to speak with her. She was still yelling.
If a father spoke this way to a female coach, he’d be tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion. As it stands today, Grizzly Moms get a free pass. There is no social pressure that keeps them at bay, which would also rescue their children from psychological fragility that will continue to hobble their development.
Grizzly Mom behavior on the sidelines is the stuff of legends. It’s so bad that it’s often used as comedic fodder, even though it isn’t funny. There are at least three groups that experience tremendous turnover due to unrestrained abuse: Good teachers, nurses, and coaches often leave their vital social-wellness forums in order to escape their teeth and claws.
There are so many sad components to overprotection of children. It’s a dynamic no sane parent intends to begin, but when it does, it continues, and the results can hinder children well into adulthood, if indeed they ever do grow up. Any way you cut this parenting pie, everyone loses. “The joy of parenting” is a haunting phrase with no personal application for moms and dads. Kids either become arrogant or passive. Neither parent nor child wins.
There’s one group of kids who get overlooked when we consider the dangerous practice of overprotection: kids who really need more adult help and more peer support, kids who are disadvantaged physically, mentally, economically, and socially. They receive less help because too many parents are over-obsessing on too few kids and neglecting our society’s most needy. The weakest in our midst need those with abundance to share their abundance. We cannot continue to ignore our growing inability to care about, and for, one another.
These children have been receiving a perplexing bushel of mixed relational messages and unfulfilled expectations of love, respect, and healthy support. Our culture is receiving countless underdeveloped souls too broken and me-centered to muster the ability to exercise moral courage on behalf of justice for all. We need to start preparing fresh graduating classes.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
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