WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE Case of mother of aspiring cheerleader shows how parents' desire for kids to succeed can become pathological


It didn't take the mother of an aspiring Texas cheerleader to demonstrate that some parents want more for their children than might be considered healthy.

"You can see it happening: The parent will think, 'How can my kid beat out the rest of these kids?' " said Gregg Mason, who, as a motion picture casting director, has observed overeager parents many times.

Ambitious stage moms and high-pressure Little League dads are common enough to have become a cliche in American life. But Wanda Holloway -- the suburban Houston mother who last week was found guilty of trying to contract the murder of the mother of her 13-year-old daughter's cheerleading rival -- gave new meaning to the concept of the pushy parent.

"Parents pushing their kids are a problem, a major problem," said Tim Keegan, director of player development for the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association. "There are lots of subtle things going on that are just as horrendous as some of the blatant ones."

The Holloway case is a blatant aberration, agree most people who are in a position to observe pushy parents. But a strong dose of parental pressure is something most children will have to deal with, especially in middle and upper middle class homes, said Dr. Stanley Turecki, a child psychiatrist and director of the Difficult Child Center in New York City.

"It's part of the general fabric and structure of modern society," he said. "The pressure for achievement on the part of children is enormous. It's a real societal trend and it's not reversible. It's not going to go away."

Even among those fresh-faced, high-kicking models of school spirit?

I have seen how competitive cheerleading is, it can be cutthroat," said Tricia O'Neill, head coach of the Atholton High School cheerleading team, which placed 11th among 96 teams in a national competition earlier this year. But, she added quickly, "I haven't met or seen any parents who would say cheerleading is their life. They usually do have a healthy perspective on it."

"I've been in education 25 years and I've never seen anything like [Wanda Holloway]," said Aurelia Burt, principal of the middle school at Roland Park Country School, a private girls' school. Nevertheless, she admitted, "we talk endlessly about this problem."

Like many others questioned about the topic, Ms. Burt declined to give specific examples of pushy parental behavior because she was afraid parents would recognize themselves.

But the problem must be addressed, she said, because "parents do live vicariously through their children. And parents have a lot at stake. They want their kids to be successful, to get into a good college, to become a professional. It often involves a lot of sacrificing on the part of parents. They want to end up with a good product.

"We have to help them realize that human beings are not boxes, not products of any kind. They have to be treated with encouragement, with nurturing, with positive reinforcement."

Nurturing and support can cross the line to pushiness when a parent has emotional problems, said Joy Silberg, coordinator of outpatient children's services for Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

"It's very hard when you're a parent to figure out how much of your own identity is contingent on your child and what he or she achieves," said Dr. Silberg, a psychologist. "When does pride in your child become something that only feeds your own self-esteem? It's a very fine line to draw, and in the most extreme cases it is a narcissistic personality disorder. The parent would see all the attention that the child gets to their own credit."

Even lesser degrees of pushiness, Dr. Silberg added, "can lead to depression and diminished self-esteem for the child. Especially if the parent is wrong about their child's abilities, it leads to frustration and feelings of failure in the child."

But there can be another, more positive, outcome of pushy parenting.

"Some children respond very well to encouragement and will thrive on competitiveness," said Dr. Turecki. "It depends on the child. A child who is ambitious, has talents of his own, can do very well when pushed. It's when you have a child who is slower-paced, more reflective, that pushing will be detrimental."

Parents who stand back and look objectively at their children can usually make the right decision about how hard to press, Dr. Turecki said. Others, however, feel that more overt guidance may be in order.

"Parents need to be trained," said Jim Loehr, sports psychologist for the United States Tennis Association. Dr. Loehr, who has written two books for the parents of young tennis players, has found "when parents know what they are supposed to do, they'll very quickly get in line. But parental instincts are often wrong. They often feel that the way to get their kids to succeed is to push them harder, to be an additional source of motivation and pressure."

Dr. Loehr cited a simple guideline to tell the difference between parental support and pushiness: "If the child wants the parent there to watch him play, he's getting support. If he doesn't, he's feeling pressure."

He added, "It's amazing what parents can get their kids to do when they get tough. The kid will get better in tennis. But that's when things begin to break down. Their critical self-esteem needs are not being met. The kid will think, 'I'm not lovable if I'm not winning.' "

In fact, the pushy parent can work against the child in a more basic way. "There is nothing that a mother can do to make you like a kid more," said Mr. Mason, who has had years of experience with stage mothers. "And most directors will react to a pushy parent by thinking, 'God, I wouldn't want to have to deal with that mother,' so the kid's not going to get the part."

In sports like tennis and gymnastics, in academics and theater, the pushy parent has become something of a stereotype, but Ms. O'Neill -- who was a cheerleader herself through her own years at Atholton High -- said it's not that surprising to find aggressive parents in cheerleading.

Some parents desperately want their children to be popular, she explained, and "cheerleading and popularity go hand in hand. They both take the same qualities: self-confidence, positive attitude. Cheerleaders know that they have something that others normally don't have. That's why they're seen as snobs."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad