PUSHY PARENTS: HOW FAR IS TOO FAR?
With a French father admitting that he drugged his children's tennis opponents, CELINE NAUGHTON reports on our high-achieving mums and dads who are driving their children to succeed - at all costs
The tale of the tennis dad who drugged his children's opponents in France is so bizarre, most parents would never identify with it. Yet, it has captured global attention, not least because it may reflect a little bit of what goes on in ordinary, everyday lives.
Christophe Fauviau, father of rising tennis star daughter Valentine who was 13 at the time, and son Maxime, then 16, admitted in court last week that he had slipped tranquillisers into the drinks of his children's opponents.
One of those opponents, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, pulled out of a match with Maxime after the first set complaining of exhaustion, fell asleep at the wheel of his car on the way home and was killed. A postmortem showed traces of Temesta, an anti-anxiety drug that causes drowsiness.
And Mr Fauviau is not the first father of a teenage tennis star to get into trouble for trying to give his child an advantage while playing a match. Yuri Sharapova, father of Maria, former Wimbledon champion, got a warning from the umpire for coaching his daughter during the semi-finals of the WTA tour championships.
While few parents would go to the extremes carried out by Mr Fauviau, some do go to surprising lengths to give their child a headstart.
"I hope we never see the likes of that happening over here, but some parents have tunnel vision as far as their own kids are concerned," says Roger Geraty of Tennis Ireland. "Walk into any park on a Saturday and instead of hearing one football manager, it sounds like 22 managers on the sideline, and they're all parents."
Indeed, many sports now have codes of conduct for parents. Mr Geraty says: "We educate coaches to educate parents and we have a strict child protection policy, including codes of ethics and conduct for everybody involved in tennis."
Rugby, long renowned as a hotbed of competition and rivalry, also has protective measures in place. "Our code of ethics includes a code of conduct for players, coaches, parents and spectators," says Hendrik Kruger of the IRFU.
While Nuala Curley, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee in Swim Ireland, agrees that "you will find parents overstepping the mark in every sport," latest policies are set to keep relationships healthy.
"There is a dedicated children's officer in every swimming club in Ireland, and parents are signing up to a code of conduct that details the roles and responsibilities of parents and guardians. If you do that from the beginning, it helps enormously."
We've all seen the yummy mummies in their Terenure tractors driving the kids from ballet to swimming, scouts to drama, horse-riding to soccer training. It's an exhausting schedule and while the parents might believe they're doing the best for their children, often it's just too much.
"They're overcooked," says Sean Cottrell, director of the Irish Primary Principals Network. "Individually, each of these activities is valuable, but cumulatively they have a negative impact because they deny the child the opportunity to be a child.
'Children are in school from 9am to 3pm, five days a week. If they have one or two extra activities that's fine, but some kids have three, four or five. They don't have enough time to get out and get dirty, climb trees and enjoy that old-fashioned thing called 'play'.
"Play is a child's work. Through play they work out relationships and make sense of things that happen in their lives. After the Dunblane tragedy in Scotland, for instance, the children re-enacted scenes from that horror to try and make sense of what had happened."
But what is the difference between being supportive and pushy? "It all depends on the answer to the question, 'Whose need is this meeting?' and my guess is that it's meeting the parent's need," says Tony Humphreys, psychologist and author of Self-Esteem: The Key to Your Child's Future (Gill and Macmillan).
"In order to please the parent, the child works, practises or studies so hard, it becomes a life of torture and torment. The child becomes very competent in one area, but is socially and spiritually immature."
One area synonymous with pushy parents is music. Violinist Nigel Kennedy recently expressed anger at the hothouse atmosphere of music colleges in the UK.
It's not so different here. One mother says she sees children in her daughter's music school taking up two or three instruments even at a young age. "No seven-year-old wants to sit practising piano and violin for two hours a day," she says.
If they're trying to cultivate a musical genius, they should think again. "Look at Mozart," says Tony Humphreys. "He was an accomplished composer by the age of seven, but in other areas he was a nincompoop. He couldn't cope and died at the age of 30 in poverty."
He also points to the life of Australian pianist David Helgott as immortalised by actor Geoffrey Rush in the film Shine.
"Having been relentlessly pushed by his father who wanted his son to be the best, the man was psychiatrically hospitalised for over 20 years. This can happen if a child learns only one area of behaviour."
Celtic Tiger cubs are also coming under increasing pressure to shine in the classroom. As parents chase places in top schools, their little hothouse flowers are forced into increasingly demanding study schedules.
"A child I taught was a typical, happy, average kid doing okay across the board - the classic middle-of-the-road child," says Sean Cottrell. "Her parents, both high achievers, took her to a psychologist, got her grinds in three subjects and enrolled her in five extra activities. Their message was that they weren't happy with her. With her self-esteem gone through the floor, the child regressed into herself.
"Pushy parents have a misplaced understanding of success. I would define success by being in secure, happy relationships, having a sense of satisfaction from what you do and having an income that keeps you out of poverty. Success cannot be measured by your salary."
Yet the pressure to achieve top marks in school continues and it has long-term effects. "It's no coincidence that medical doctors, who demonstrate the highest levels of academic knowledge, also have the highest rate of suicide, alcohol addiction and marital breakdown," says Tony Humphreys.
In order to serve our children better, we need to leave them be, he reasons. "Separateness is the key to good parenting. Parents need to live their own lives. The mother who needs her child to need her or the father who dominates and controls his children are not living their own lives." What advice does he have for parents who want to support and encourage their children without being pushy?
"Never compare a child with other children," he says. "If she/he is having a problem, sit down and talk with your child. Don't talk to him or at him. Say, 'What do you feel about that? Tell me more about that. What can you and I do together that will help? Every child wants to develop his own individuality and needs to be encouraged and supported in that."
THE FATHERS WHO COURTED SUCCESS
Pushy parents are nothing new in the tennis world. Remember these?
* Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, is said to have planned Grand Slam winners before his famous daughters were born and he jokes they were holding tennis rackets before they could walk.
* Stefano Capriati signed contracts with sponsors which made his daughter a millionaire, but critics accused him of treating her like a cash machine.
* Jim Pierce's stormy relationship with his daughter Mary led to him being banned from WTA tour events for five years in the '90s for abusive behaviour. "Tennis was never my dream," she said. "I was simply told that this is what I would do."
* Peter Graf, known as 'Papa Merciless' in the German press, controlled his daughter's tennis coaching with military precision but was less efficient with his finances. He was jailed in 1997 for evading tax on his daughter's earnings.
Getting the balance right
These tips for parents are from the Child Protection Guidelines of Tennis Ireland but they can be applied to any activity.
* Offer encouragement, especially when your children face hard times. Do not use punishment and withdrawal of love, affection and warmth to get your children to try harder or perform better.
* Ask questions such as, "How was the match? How did you play? Did you enjoy it?" which show you care about your child rather than the result. Avoid asking, "Did you win?" after your child comes back from a match.
* Make your child feel valuable and reinforce his self-esteem, especially when he/she loses. Avoid criticising your child's results.
* Emphasise that, "Win or lose, I love you just the same." Do not get upset or treat your child differently when she/he loses.
* Stick to your parental role. Avoid trying to be your child's coach (i.e. becoming too involved in strategy, technique, etc).
* Recognise and be generous in applauding the performance and effort of your child's opponents. Do not ignore or criticise your child's opponents.