The Need for Parenting Credentials?

While most of us spent yesterday celebrating fathers we seem to spend the rest of the year placing parents under a microscope.  So far in 2012 we've heard about why French parents are superior and why you aren't good enough if you aren't a breast-feeding mom.  And those are just the major headlines. Yesterday The Boston Globe Magazine ran an excellent piece on spanking, along with a well-researched timeline on the history of discipline in Massachusetts (though I do wish they had defined "spanking" more clearly-- is it over the clothes, using a strap, etc.).  The author, James Burnett III, starts by explaining how closeted spanking is and how many parents would not even consent to be interviewed.  He even compares the shame associated with spanking to extended breastfeeding.

This feature was especially timely given another story that made the rounds last week: Mom Carla Williams, of Lowell, MA was arrested after punching her 10-year-old daughter in the nose.  Williams claimed that she could discipline her child any way she saw fit.  The law disagrees, of course.  In a TV appearance on NECN's Morning Show and a radio appearance on WBZ's NightSide last week I explained why Williams is wrong-- mainly because you should think of discipline as child abuse if you bruise, break bones, or draw blood. You can see my clip below, and read more of my thoughts which are part of the article on their website, "Fallout after Lowell, Mass. mother accused of punching her child."

Both discussions were framed around the challenging question of whether or not we should license people to be parents.  This would be difficult for all sorts of legal and historical questions, as I mentioned, but it is worth pointing out that there is one instance where we do in fact require parents to be licensed: adoption.  Adults who want to adopt go through a rigorous process to prove their worthiness and capabilities.  In many instances age (at the upper bound), sexuality, race, education, and class come into play and worthy people are dismissed.  These are people who would more than likely make excellent parents if they could conceive on their own.  They would almost certainly be better parents than Carla Williams and Tuan Huynh, a Pennsylvania father who was recently sentenced for abandoning his 16-year-old daughter 14 miles away from her home after she failed calculus.  Huynh, who clearly wants the best for his daughter in terms of her education, didn't have the best parenting education himself; now he'll have to take parenting classes that clearly would have been helpful before this tragic incident.

Also, as more and more details of abuse emerge from the ongoing Jerry Sandusky trial, it's worth remembering that youth sports coaches also don't have to be certified to work with kids (Note that I wrote in that piece, "Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than programs where children can suffer catastrophic physical and emotional injury."  In Sunday's New York Times Magazine Jacob Goldstein wrote an interesting article on efforts to loosen restrictions on cosmetology licenses in various states. A diverse group are backing these efforts, which this far have not been successful.  I wish more would focus on licensing those who work with children and worry less about licensing or not licensing those who braid hair). As long as children are accused of "asking for" sexual abuse, as this story about an Indiana high school student who was raped by her volleyball coach suggests, it's clear we need better education not just for kids and coaches, but for parents as well.

No parent is perfect and we all can use more knowledge and education.  But no adult should abuse a child in any way and legally get away with it.  No matter what their credentials say.

Sex, Sexual Abuse, and Sports

Given the recent, multiple sexual abuse scandals in sports (from Penn State to Syracuse, and now even the Amateur Athletic Union) it's not surprising that this past weekend two major newspapers published stories on the ways in which sports can provide a breeding ground for pedophiles (click here to read The New York Times' take, "Coaching Gives Abusers Opportunity and Trust," and here to read Minnesota's Star Tribune's, "Sports can act as cover for abusers").  Both pieces highlight that the impacts and complications for boys are different than those for girls.  The NYT explains that girls are far more likely to be abused, but it is suspected that the abuse of boys is under-reported given the hyper-masculine environment of sports and persistent fear about homosexuality. Still, sexual abuse of young girls by adult males is presumed to happen more often. While I understand the context of sports, sexuality, and sex/gender that the writers refer to, I can't help but observe that it is really the sexual abuse of boys that gets the media attention.  This has also been true over the years-- recals the Catholic Church sexual abuse cases and allegations of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts, for example.  What's especially interesting to me, in this moment, is that a similar story about sexual (and in this case, also physical) abuse in youth sports has been pretty much overlooked by the mainstream media: that is the story of Don Peters, Doug Boger,  and "women's" gymnastics.

I first wrote about this story in early October, long before the Sandusky news broke.  But beyond the excellent work of The Orange County Register, which continues to follow developments in the case (for instance, in the past week they reported that a convicted sex offender has regained control of a Colorado gym where he is still around young girls), other major print outlets have virtually ignored this case of abuse.  Sure, it warranted a sentences in the Times' coverage on Saturday. But that is not even close to commensurate to the coverage of male abuse victims.

Will it be the sexual abuse of boys that pushes legislators to better protect youth athletes?  If so, does this seem right to you? Do you believe boys and girls will be equally protected by whatever changes come in the aftermath of these (youth) sports sexual abuse scandals?

NECN Appearance on Andover Sports Hazing and Parents' Right to Question Coaching Credentials

In the aftermath of a hazing incident at a summer basketball camp, two Andover High School students have been expelled, the franchised basketball camp (Hoop Mountain) has been kicked off the college campus where the camp was held, and a legal investigation is underway as well. I appeared on NECN's The Morning Show (NECN is the regional cable news network for New England) to discuss how parents can try to prevent, and protect their children, from hazing by asking questions of and about coaches and camp counselors.

(Note: I am in fact 36 weeks pregnant here. I don't always look like this! I will be able to show my son his first-- in utero-- television appearance someday though.)

For more of my thoughts on protecting youth from potentially predatory or untrustworthy coaches, teachers, and camp counselors, check out this piece on the need for state coaching certifications, this piece on summer camps, and this on questions you should ask of all your child's afterschool instructors.

(Also, in case we needed any more disturbing reminders about who we allow around our children, this story came out today about a children's casting agent sexually abusing kids [I guess it shouldn't surprise me that you can become a children's casting agent and never go through a background check to make sure you aren't a pedophile.]).

In the Wake of the Sandusky Scandal, A Call for Youth Coaching Certifications (from HuffPo Parents)

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON THE HUFFINGTON POST PARENTS The arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a former college football coach and community volunteer who worked with children, on forty counts of child molestation of young boys has shocked and frightened many parents. As well it should.

At the end of every weekday millions of kids dash out of school and into the care of adults, like Sandusky, who are meant to teach and mentor them in sports, academics, and music. Some of these adults generously donate their time (like Scout leaders, church volunteers, tutors, and Little League coaches), while others charge a fee for their services (like dance and music teachers or coaches of travel teams/elite sports).

While they are all educating children, not all of these adults are vetted. Regulation of afterschool coaches, mentors, and volunteers is so lax, and in some cases nonexistent, that many do not ever undergo a routine background check to make sure they have never been convicted of child molestation. That means that some of the "professionals" paid to teach children in afterschool activities may have previously been convicted, charged, or accused of child molestation. Earlier this year the gymnastics community was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal when it was discovered that coach Doug Boger, who had been banned by USA Gymnastics for abusing girls in California, was still coaching young girls in a gym in Colorado Springs. States are responsible for passing laws to require background checks, and not all states have such legislation. At a minimum, all fifty states should require mandatory, national, fingerprint-based background checks of all adults who interact with children (legally defined as those 18 and under).

But is that enough? No. In addition to making sure that the basics are covered -- like those background checks regarding child molestation, and CPR certification -- parents should make sure that coaches are experts in their area, with training in both the substantive subject matter (like piano, chess, soccer, etc.) and in instruction of children. State legislation that certifies youth activity coaches and organizations would make that process easier.


Currently anyone can open a dance studio or a music school and no one could stop them from charging fees for services. Essentially no formal certification procedures exist to make sure that the tap teacher, the oboe instructor, or the lacrosse coach who you write a check to each month is qualified to instruct your child in tap, the oboe, or lacrosse. Imagine if we ran schools this way.

Since 2005 I have studied the organization of children's competitive afterschool activities both as a graduate student at Princeton University and as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. When I was studying competitive youth soccer I interviewed one business owner who proudly told me that because he is from Latin America parents assume he is good at soccer. In fact, he is a terrible player. Instead of playing up soccer skills, he plays up his accent which he claimed parents responded to well.

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to kids' activities, these issues are often happily ignored; parents don't want to offend a coach and risk precious playing time or attention for their child by asking questions. But given the number of injuries currently observed in children's activities, from broken bones to concussions to serious knee injuries, like ACL tears, this needs to change for the safety of those children. Coaches need to be properly trained to train young bodies, and minds, in a safe way. As more and more kids participate in these activities in an increasingly competitive way, more serious injuries will result.

Many coaches and parents resist formal regulation of youth coaches on two grounds. The first is that we should not live in a nanny state that tells parents what they should or should not do with their kids. But this used to be said about daycare centers. After one too many accidents and one too many child molestation cases, this changed as the need to protect children and provide parents with safe options became more important.

Others resist certification procedures because that may drive up the costs. Again, this used to be said about childcare, and while the professionalization of childcare providers has resulted in higher fees, fewer children dying or being abused makes the trade-off seem worth it.

In the end every parent will make the decision they think best for his or her child. But that decision should be based on as much trustworthy information as possible. At present parents can ask other parents about experiences with a particular youth sports coach or organization. But if states required certifications for coaches, dance studios, gyms, and the like, parents would have a more reliable source of information and trust that their children are being safely instructed by other adults.

Sadly, nail salons are better regulated and have more safety requirements than programs where children can suffer catastrophic physical and emotional injury. If some good can come of the Sandusky scandal perhaps it can be treating our children as least as well as we treat our nails.

Throw Like a Girl: Reviewing Softball Legend Jennie Finch's New Book (from BlogHer Sports)

You may recognize her from her pitching in the Olympics. Or from the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Or even from The Apprentice. Now you should also recognize her as an author. Softball great, and Olympic gold medalist, Jennie Finch, has just released her first book: Throw Like A Girl: How to Dream Big & Believe in Yourself (with sports journalist Ann Killion). This 256-page autobiographical work, recently published by sports press Triumph, is targeted at teen girls (it may be a bit long for elementary school-age readers, but is a great fit for middle- and high-school audiences). If your daughter is a softball player, or athlete of any type, this is a must read.

Throw Like A Girl traces Finch’s career from her days on Southern California sandlots to international softball diamonds on travel, high school, college, Olympic, and pro teams.  Divided into three sections—Body, Mind, and Heart— Finch gives tips on how to navigate politics in youth sports, how college recruiting really works, and how to balance sports, schooling, and a social life (at various life stages, as she covers her own marriage and pregnancies).  While she does repeat some stories a few times, the pictures and inspirational quotes throughout help distract from this repetition.

The gist of the book is summarized on page seven: “Through sports I learned to accept and appreciate my body and to accept myself for who I am. I gained confidence and inspiration. Athletics is not only good for your body, it’s great for your mind and spirit. And I learned that life is about so much more than just the wins and losses at the end of a game.”  Throughout Finch explains why athletics are beneficial to girls today, while also highlighting problem areas in youth sports—themes that resonate with my academic research on girls and competitive sports.


n my work I label girls who are highly competitive and highly feminine “pink girls.”  These young women choose what type of girl they want to be, while performing at such a high level that they often beat boys.  She writes that the contrast between being a tough-as-nails athlete and a hot-pink-on-nails girl provides her with the right balance.  Some of her friends and teammates have chosen to be even more “supergirly” and others have chosen to shave their heads.  Finch explains that softball, and sports, has room for all types of girls.

Finch chose to be a pink girl from a young age: “When I started playing sports, I always put ribbons in my braids or ponytails.  My father was the one who did my hair for me before games when I was little because my mom was often at work. He always said that just because girl plays sports doesn’t mean she can’t be feminine. So that became my motto, too.” (55)

Finch’s father has played a huge role in her life.  More than anyone else besides the author he is the star of the book.  He developed a machine named the “Finch windmill” to help his daughter develop the muscles in her non-pitching arm.  He explained to her that her teammates depended on her and she shouldn’t go outside and ride her bike, for fear of breaking an arm.  And he defended her at games when people yelled from the stands that they were lying about her age.

Mr. Finch was an extremely involved sports dad who pushed his daughter to her limits to succeed.  While it clearly paid off in this case, it’s also clear that not all kids would respond well to this sort of parenting style.  Still, it’s a great example of sports bringing a father and daughter closer together, something that is still somewhat rare for many daddy-daughter combos, as I have previously written about on BlogHer.

Finch’s story shows how sports can help forge other familial bonds.  An obvious example is that Finch married a professional baseball player (a pitcher, no less), Casey Daigle.  Less obvious is the role her two older, athletic brothers played in her sports development.  For example, she explains that having older brothers helped prepare her parents to deal with the politics of youth sports teams (like the coach who likes to use his own child as star pitcher) and how to pick good coaches.

Finch provides other bits of relevant, practical advice to young athletes and their parents.  She tells people to be wary about those who sell services to young athletes and do some homework before hiring them—that just because they charge money doesn’t make them qualified (this is a real pet peeve of mine when it comes to the world of children’s competitive activities, as you can see here and here).  Finch also encourages young athletes to continue to explore various sporting opportunities and not specialize too young.  This includes playing different sports for fun and playing on a school team, not just for select travel teams.  Parents will especially appreciate her message that studying for school must also remain a priority.

While some of the tips apply to boys and girls, girls really are the focus in Throw Like a Girl. Finch discusses all the various competitive pressures girls may feel in their lives (academic, athletic, peer, romantic, and the list goes on), explaining she felt all of them at some point.  She doesn’t use psychologist Stephen Hinshaw’s term “The Triple Bind,” which refers to the pressures girls today feel to achieve like boys but still be nice and look good, but she has clearly lived this triple bind and succeeded.  While she is a positive role model I couldn’t help but ask myself if any male athletes would describe themselves as she did on page twenty: “I wasn’t the coolest girl. I wasn’t the most popular. I was too tall. I was chunky.”  Hopefully the next generation of female superstar athletes will read this book, take Jennie Finch’s advice to heart, and move beyond this triple bind.