The Vicarious Parent


“I don’t understand…I was always an excellent athlete.”

“When I did gymnastics, I was afraid of backward tumbling too.”

“I had no trouble balancing school and gymnastics.”

“I just want her to get the college scholarship that I didn’t get because I got injured.”

“I was an Olympian, so she knows what it takes to be a success.”

These are all real comments that I have heard from parents when discussing the progress of their children.

Their children…and yet each sentence contained more information about themselves.

And all of them have this in common: a parent who is living vicariously through their child’s sports experience.

We all love our children so much that it is sometimes hard to decipher where we end and where they begin. We are so connected to them that we literally feel every bruise, physically or emotionally, that they encounter. We are so devoted to them that we would give our lives to preserve theirs.

None of these sentiments are bad. In fact, they are indicative of the deep and irrational love a parent feels for their children.

However, when that love morphs into an inability to separate the parent’s sports experience from the child’s, there are real consequences that are problematic.

First, it is irrelevant. A parent’s experience in sport is just that: the parent’s. The child is a separate individual who is having his or her own experience.

Next, it is confusing. When a parent’s dream or expectation for a child’s sports experience does not coincide with the child’s dream or expectation, it can ruin the experience for the child.

Finally, it robs the child of getting help and support from the parent. When a parent is focused on what the experience was like for them, they are not being empathetic but narcissistic. Empathy isn’t taking your experience and assuming that it is the experience of others. Instead, empathy is sensing another’s emotions and taking their perspective to imagine what they might be feeling or thinking—not what you would feel and think. Instead of helping their child, these parents are trying to live out the dream or overcome the difficulty that they had in their childhood.

Sure, if we participated in a sport, maybe even in the same sport, as our child, we might have our own stories of trial or triumph we can share that could be helpful to the child. But when we assume that our child’s experiences, feelings and goals are automatically the same as ours we are now living vicariously through our child instead of watching our child’s experience unfold.

I once heard someone say that if we are lucky we will have two chances at a parent child relationship: one as the child and the other at the parent. Be the parent and let your child be the child.

And if you find yourself saying “I” too frequently when discussing your child’s sports experience, take a step back and remember which role you are playing now.