Whatever cranky, excessive behaviour you’ve seen parents display on the sideline, it really wasn’t that bad. Well, not bad when you compare it with some of the wild examples of parental misbehaviour on the web.

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Timothy Forbes’ son lost a basketball match, so Timothy hit the opposing team’s coach – then bit his ear off. Jerome Breland thought his son was being bullied by a team mate, so he put poison in the 12-year-old’s water bottle. Joseph Cordes did not like his daughter’s hockey team losing, so he would shine a laser pointer into the eyes of the opposition, and Wanda Holloway tried to hire a hitman to take out the mother of a girl who replaced her 13-year-old daughter on a cheerleading squad. So, really, we are very well-behaved, by comparison with the worst in the world, and even by comparison with New Zealand a few years ago.

The general opinion is that we still have a way to go, but sideline behaviour actually seems to be improving. It’s hard to tell though, because even though parents and coaches may be better behaved, we’re actually noticing it more because what we’re willing to tolerate has changed.

Every club and union in the country has run campaigns about sideline behaviour. You see signs reminding parents that it is not a World Cup match. If you do a little Googling on ‘rugby sideline behaviour’ you will find a stack of websites and videos dedicated to boosting supporter behaviour, and some of the videos are very good (especially the ‘Applaud’ campaign on smallblacks.com). Discipline committees take sideline incidents very seriously and referees can red card parents and refuse to resume a game until the parent leaves. Parents themselves are also much more willing to step-up and cool down abusive spectators.

I am going to assume that any parent who has read this far into an article with this title is not a real sideline felon. (Yes, you did loudly question the ref’s eyesight once, but you still feel a bit guilty about it). Instead, I would like to sprinkle some parenting insights over the sideline dynamic.

For a start, well done! You’re there! Your presence on the sideline is incredibly important to your child. Admittedly, they will not be spending much time reflecting on it, and they might not think to thank you for it until they have children, but just being there is shouting something good into your kid’s heart.

Children believe they are what a parent tells them they are, and your presence tells them that you think they’re worth turning up for. When you’re standing there with your toes freezing in your gumboots, with your umbrella blown inside-out, rain running down your neck, and your glasses so covered in rain you cannot see the game anyway, you’re actually being an All Black-quality parent. Kids can rise to achieve in life from any background and with almost any level of adversity, but the road to success is most often travelled by kids with supportive parents in the background.

A word of caution – there are ways of being absent even when your body is present. A child totally absorbed in the game will glimpse across at his mum or dad occasionally and can tell in an instant whether they’re watching or staring at their phone. If you can’t be at the game, show a real interest later on, ask lots of questions and express your hope to get to one soon.

Remember that tone carries further than words. There might not be anything wrong with what you’re yelling from the sideline – in fact the bits of advice you are bellowing could be absolute game winners – but your child might not actually be able to hear the words because they’re being drowned out by your tone. Just like turning up the volume on those nasty little computer speakers distorts the audio, yelling at your kids can often sound angry and critical even if that was not your intention. The tip – anything that sounds like anger doesn’t work. So listen to your tone, or just go for words that are guaranteed to carry encouragement – “Well done!”, “Good on you!”, “Yes!” etc. When in doubt, clap.

Embarrassment flattens kids faster than almost anything. Your kids would rather be stomped on by the opposition than feel the burn of being embarrassed by their parent. Yes, there is a background level of embarrassment that most parents generate simply because we are old, unfashionable and tell dad jokes, but if we get angry or abusive, embarrassment becomes toxic. Does it matter? Absolutely. It sucks the fun out of the game (and fun, not winning, is their main motivation for staying in sport), it evaporates their self-esteem, and it may wreck your relationship with them.

How much fun would sport be without a worthy opponent? No fun at all. Let your child pick up from you a key part of sportsmanship – the other team are not the enemy. Let them see you talking to the other team’s parents, and applauding the opposition’s good plays. Respect is contagious. If you hope they’ll catch your passion for sport, let them also catch your respect for the ref, their team, their coach, and the opposition.

Separate the game from the child. You love it when your child wins, but make sure they never get the slightest hint that you love them because they win. Few things are as corrosive to a child’s heart as believing that your love and approval are based on their performance. You love them because you love them, full stop. When they have a great game, congratulate and celebrate. When they have a lousy game, commiserate and encourage.

Nearly every child topples into low self-esteem at some stage, especially early adolescence when they just cannot see the good things that are so obvious to us. And some kids are genuinely depressed. Sometimes it is just a dip in their spirits, but for others it is a chronic battle. For kids struggling with mood and self-esteem issues, goals – especially big bold goals – can be paralysing rather than motivating. The trick is to place tiny goals in front of them, ones that can be achieved as long as they can just keep putting one foot in front of another. As they achieve it, commend them, and set another goal, with just a little bit more of a stretch in it. Gradually increase the tiny steps to bigger and bigger ones, and they will make amazing progress eventually.

The thing that can cause confusion is when you identify too much with your child’s game. If you feel like their wins are your wins and their losses are your losses, they may pick up wrong messages when they lose. If they mistake your disappointment for disappointment in them, it can hurt very deeply. It will also make it harder for them to learn some of life’s most valuable lessons – failure is survivable, and you can make failure a step towards success. Be the big person, rise up over your own emotions about the game and be a parent.

We will also find ourselves on the figurative sideline of our kids’ many endeavours as they grow up, watching them cope – and sometimes fail – with friendships, study, romances, first jobs and other challenges. Because we love them, we will feel all their triumphs and setbacks, and because they love us, they will feel our love and support. When our kids are young and first start playing rugby, we run around on the field with them, but after a while, we stand on the sideline and let them play on their own.

This is an excerpt from the bespoke edition of Parenting magazine created by Parenting Place in collaboration with New Zealand Rugby

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John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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