Guest Column - February 2004
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Help Parents Grow Up

Recreation agencies nationwide are adopting a parent education program

By Kathleen Avitt

Organized youth sports programs have the amazing ability to bring out the best in children—and the worst in parents.

While the majority of today's parents are a supportive and caring group, there's an ever-increasing number who continue to cause major disruptions across the youth sports landscape with their negative and immature behavior that often escalates into physical confrontations and violent outbreaks.

Regardless of the sport or the age of the participants, the simple fact is that much of the childish behavior we're seeing in youth sports programs these days isn't from the kids on the field but rather from the parents in the stands.

"I have coached, played and umpired, and now I have a 6-year-old in soccer and T-ball, and I'm just amazed at what I see," says Dr. Dan Wann, an associate professor of psychology at Murray State University and author of Sport Fans: The Psychology & Social Impact of Spectators. "We have huge problems in our society that we can't do anything about, but this is something we can make better."

Many recreation agencies are taking proactive steps to enhance their youth sports programs and have embraced the Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) parent education program. Since PAYS was introduced in 2000, more than 700 recreation agencies have run the program.

Clearly, the issue of spectator behavior has grabbed the attention of recreation directors. The focus has shifted on teaching parents—through PAYS—what is expected of them at games before the season gets under way to help ensure positive behavior and a violence-free atmosphere at youth athletic events.

It is part of a widespread movement, which continues to gain momentum across the country, to rein in parental outbursts, eliminate verbal and physical conflicts, and create a youth sports setting that is less volatile and more child-friendly.

The National Alliance For Youth Sports created the PAYS program to help parents clearly understand their roles and responsibilities in the youth sports setting. The Alliance is one of America's leading advocates for positive and safe sports for children.

For parents, knowing when to cheer, and when to chill out, can often be difficult to differentiate. While many wonderful parents successfully walk this behavioral tightrope, too many others blatantly trip over the boundaries of good behavior—often without even realizing the ramifications of their actions—and the results are typically disastrous.

"We have all seen the footage on the news of some disturbing incidents at youth sports events, and we did not want to see anything like that happen in our community," says Kyle Langlois, recreation coordinator for Clinton Township Parks and Recreation in Michigan, one of many agencies that mandate the PAYS program. "We have not had any major problems before, but we wanted an awareness-type program that shows parents how they could help everyone benefit from a youth sports experience."

The PAYS program, which is conducted in more than 700 cities nationwide, has widespread appeal due to several factors. Parents appreciate the minimal time commitment required. The program involves watching a 19-minute videotape ("It PAYS to be positive") and signing the Parents' Code of Ethics, which is a pledge to adhere to a standard of behavior.

Now the PAYS program can even be completed online, too. The online version was recently introduced to provide parents, who often juggle chaotic schedules, with the opportunity to go through the program from the convenience of their home or office. It also alleviates the workload of time-strapped recreation professionals, who can now rely on their parents to complete the course at home.

Parents who go through the PAYS program, which costs $5 through a recreation department and $6 online, receive four quarterly issues of the Youth Sports Journal. The Journal is packed with a variety of articles, tips and information that is focused on helping adults ensure that their child has a fun and rewarding experience, along with helping them deal with a wide range of issues that typically arise during the course of a youth sports season. The Journal is inserted in SportingKid magazine, so parents have the added benefit of receiving another quality publication devoted to youth sports.

Other benefits include a parent handbook, PAYS membership card, National Standards for Youth Sports booklet and discounted car rentals through Hertz.

"I think the PAYS program makes it a lot easier on the coaches, and it's great for the parents," says Brian Meyer, the facilities division manager for the Rolling Meadows Park District in Illinois. "The main goal of the PAYS program is to prevent incidents from happening, and we wanted to be proactive in our approach, and it has obviously worked very well for us."

Parents want—and deserve—the very best for their children. Whether it's a dance recital, spelling bee, school play or soccer game, they want their child to succeed. But once scoreboards enter the picture, and championships are on the line, youth sports can disintegrate into a volatile mess of fist-swinging parents.

And the children are the innocent victims.

Youngsters nationwide deserve to play in fun-filled programs that aren't plagued by foul-mouthed, ill-mannered parents whose out-of-control behaviors are not tolerated in any other part of society.

Youth sports programs are a wonderful way to create countless memories that children will look back on for the rest of their life.

It's up to recreation leaders—by utilizing top-quality programs such as PAYS—to help make sure those memories are happy ones.

Kathleen Avitt is the national program director of the Parents Association for Youth Sports, a program of the National Alliance For Youth Sports. For more information, call 800-688-KIDS, e-mail or visit