I'm completely scornful of helicopter parents, but yesterday I was sorely tempted to become one. We were at one of Twelve's volleyball games, this time one for which I had to drive 20 miles to a middle school I hadn't known existed, and she wasn't getting to play much. Not my favorite situation.
Twelve isn't very good at volleyball. However, neither are her teammates. Games are pretty awful: Balls hitting the floor. Serves going straight into the net. Audience members compelled to constant vigilance, lest we be nailed by the frequent strays.
At last week's home game, Twelve played for three minutes by her own calculation. I didn't time it, but that sounds about right. I figured it was because she had missed practice the day before, but it was her birthday and she had discussed it with her coach ahead of time, so I felt like I was being fairly generous to the coach when I reassured Twelve that it was probably her coach's policy to not play you if you missed practice. So, on the way to yesterday's game, we decided that if she wasn't happy with her playing time, I would help her initiate a conversation with her coach about it (more of that middle-class concerted cultivation of future members of the middle class).
In the first game (set? Match? My volleyball experience consisted of one very confused seventh grade season and the sport is still a mystery to me), Twelve played for about seven of the 40 or so serves in the whole thing. There are only a dozen players on the team, so by my estimate, with six girls on the floor (court? Side?) at a time, that means that there's room for everyone to play half the time.
I'm spending two hours and driving 40 miles to watch my daughter sit on the bench eighty percent of the time? I started getting riled up.
Quietly riled up, in an I'm-just-sitting-here-watching manner, busily conducting indignant yet carefully polite conversations in my head. I'd smile sweetly and open with one of those questions that's really a challenge: "Can you give us a sense of your playing time philosophy? I'm hoping that missing practice for her birthday dinner with extended family won't have long-term consequences for Twelve's playing time."
Depending on the coach's response, I'd need to be ready with several good comebacks. If she says she plays the girls based on ability, I'd sling back one of those questions that pretends that I need clarification on something but is really a challenge: "Are there specific skills that Twelve needs to work on that the other players have? I've noticed that all of the players seem to be working on developing the basic skills, so I'm not sure that I understand why Twelve is being singled out." If the coach says that playing time is determined by attitude and effort, I'd be ready to flip it right back around on her: "My sense is that Twelve is demoralized by knowing that she's not going to play very much anyway, so she's not motivated to try very hard. Can you give her some specific suggestions about what she can do that will result in more playing time?"
I was working myself into quite a frenzy when I realized that I was very close to developing the dreaded helicopterous parentitis.
One of my most highly prized parenting moral high grounds is that I'm not a helicopter parent. I don't consider my child to be a fragile snowflake in need of constant hovering attention and advocacy. I'm proudest of the moments when she's sorted things out for herself and told me about it later. As I teach her to navigate the world, I emphasize that things don't always work out perfectly in your favor.
Okay, so what are some other possible explanations for Twelve not getting much playing time? We've already covered the fact that she sucks, but so does everyone else, so that can't be it. She serves underhand, not overhand, but I think her success rate is about the same, so that shouldn't be it.
I'm pretty sure it's Twelve's lack of hustle. All of the volleyball teams that she's been on have shared a very weird culture of shrieking support of hustling. Everything that the players try to do is subject to shrill shrieks and high fives, regardless of its result: You hit the ball over the net? Woo-hoo! You hit the ball into the net? Woo-hoo! You hit the ball out of bounds and knocked off somebody's glasses? Woo-hoo! We won the game? Woo-hoo! Completely futile scurrying about is valued as much as actual accomplishment.
It's absurd. (It's also very bad for our high-frequency hearing, as R reminds us. Between the shrieking, the official's whistle, and the scoreboard horn, there's no way I'm going to be able to hear [insert name of bird with high-frequency song here] when I'm eighty.)
When I played sports in middle school,
I don't think we cheered for pointless hustle just as enthusiastically as we cheered actual success. I wasn't very skilled, to be sure, but my lack of hustle was largely due to the fact that I didn't know what was
going on most of the time. I may not have had the skills, but I definitely couldn't react fast enough to use them if I had. I'm not sure how relevant that might be for Twelve,
and if her experience is similar to mine in that respect, it will be
the very first thing our middle school experiences have had in
common. At any rate, Twelve isn't very aggressive and does not see the point of lunging after a ball she won't possibly be able to get, and I think the coach interprets this as her not hustling and therefore doesn't play her as much.
I probably won't bring this up with the coach. I suppose I could ask her for some skill-building drills that I could help Twelve with at home, but I value my near environment and I'd rather not see it destroyed. I also have a hundred or so pages of a dissertation to write in the next ten months, and no real clue how that's supposed to happen.
It was just scary to realize that it wouldn't be so difficult to fall into the helicopter parent trap. Having a reasonably successful and privileged child has kept me smugly away from feeling like I need to helicopter. Volleyball is one of the only arenas in which Twelve doesn't enjoy high status, and seeing one's child be less-than-good at something isn't easy or fun. I won't go so far as to claim that Twelve's volleyball skills make interactions with the other parents awkward, since my interactions with other parents always feel awkward, but I see how having particularly high-achieving or low-achieving children would affect one's attitude. If Twelve was a star player, I'd be smug. Most certainly smug. If she was the worst player on the team, I'd be supportive of her and gracious to the other parents, but it would sting.
Of all the feminist theory I've read, I can't think of anyone who has addressed, head-on, all the ways in which people are competitive that don't neatly fit into the systems of privilege and oppression. Class privilege is a huge factor, of course, but it's so much more nuanced than that. Who gets playing time and who doesn't, who is on time for the game and who isn't, who carpools with whom, and so on. Maybe the point would be to sort all of the mini status markers into the
basic privilege and oppression categories, or maybe not. Some of these minor points of relative status have to do with social class, some undoubtedly with looks, but I suspect that the human capacity for competition extends beyond our current system of categorizing it. Maybe there
are more systems of privilege and oppression still to be named! It's almost too bad that my dissertation topic is firmly established.