Fall means soccer, winter brings basketball, and then finally we get to play baseball; so go the seasons of childhood. As parents, we idealize the gifts that youth sports can bring to kids such as improving physical fitness, learning about teamwork, and experiencing the thrill of victory. But the Sandusky tragedy reminds us that even people who seem to have our kids' best interests at heart may not.
Parental involvement with kids' sports has always been beneficial to family relationships and children's self-esteem. Now we're reminded that child safety is also enhanced by the presence of a parent or other observant adult at practices and games. A convicted pedophile that I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent told me that "nothing makes a child less attractive than having his parent around all the time." Most of us can't be around all the time, but we can take steps to ensure that there is always one adult with eyes on your child.
Many youth sports teams have specific volunteer or required roles to help the team operate like "snack parent" or "equipment parent." As the next team season approaches, think about collaborating with other parents to develop a rotating schedule for a "stand parent", an adult to attend each game or practice to watch over and cheer for each player.
The organization Safe for Athletes was founded by a former Olympian who endured sexual abuse and harassment during her career as an elite, youthful athlete. Safe for Athletes goes a step farther and encourages leagues to appoint an Athlete Welfare Advocate, a "designated adult any athlete can contact with concerns about any coach, volunteer, other athlete or anyone making them uncomfortable in their role as an athlete."
This type of advocate may have an important role in highly competitive sports organizations such as those preparing elite athletes for national competitions. Properly screened and trained, such advocates could be a lifeline for kids dealing with a coach who exhibits any harmful behavior, including sexual abuse. Less formal organizations should still consider a strategy to enhance parental involvement for child safety, and this should be on the agenda of a pre-season parent meeting.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization that brought missing children to the forefront of the American consciousness several decades ago, recently developed an initiative named Safe to Compete providing resources to help youth-sports organizations protect child athletes from sexual abuse. Their resource page contains links to sample policies and procedures for youth and athletic organizations, and I hope parents share this with other parents and league administrators. But policies are never foolproof, and there is no substitute for an adult with set of loving, watchful eyes.
When the schedule for the next season arrives in your email, switch right over to your calendar and block off time for a pre-season parent meeting and for as many games and practices as possible. The fresh air will be good for you and your presence can be a gift to all of the children on the team.
Rosenzweig recently presented on this topic at the 2014 National Soccer Coaches Association of America Convention in Philadelphia. She is also the author of The Sex-Wise Parent. For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group.
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