Little League Parent Syndrome

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PARENTS BEHAVING BADLY
Immature behavior, ranting, raving, arguing, and inappropriate comments. This list sounds like the problems every parent has to deal with about their children. Ironically enough however, these were the allegations made about a parent, not a child, in a recent Family Court matter. The Judge went so far as to characterize this behavior as “Little League Parent Syndrome.” I’m not sure that this is recognized as an official diagnosis, but it was enough for Judge Lawrence Jones, a family Court Judge in Toms River, to write an opinion detailing the dangers of parents behaving badly.(i)

In short, two divorced parents were having trouble getting along. The judge awarded custody to the mother, but allowed the father to attend their seven year old son’s Little League games. This was a coach-pitch league. After the summer, Mom went to the Court to ask the Judge to prohibit Dad from attending the games, because of his objectionable behavior, which included disparaging and insulting the coach. Everyone attending the games could hear what he said.

The Judge wrote that Little League (and other organized children’s sporting events) are valuable facets of a child’s life, and that the lessons and goals of such leagues; including sportsmanship, facing adversity, listening and following directions, and exercise; are positive influences and should be encouraged. The Judge felt that even though it is also favorable for a parent to attend these games, inappropriate parental behavior will not be tolerated. The Judge went further-he enumerated a code of conduct for parents of children participating in sporting events, and indicated that any violation of this code could be held against them in any further custody proceedings, as they were evidence of a parent’s poor self-control and behavior. Instead of holding a hearing to figure out exactly what happened, the Judge basically decided to, as he called it, “reboot” the situation. He felt a hearing would be overly expensive and detrimental to the child. He gave both parents a “second chance” to behave appropriately, which he said was another positive goal of sporting events-giving people a second chance, whether it be from poor behavior or missing the cut-off man.

This opinion is important because although it is only a trial level decision (meaning it is not binding on any subsequent cases), this Judge is well-regarded as a Family Court Judge and he writes many opinions on interesting and unique areas of Family Law; many of which are ultimately deferred to and accepted by other Judges and higher-level courts. This is the first time I have come across an opinion regarding the stereotypical overbearing little league parent; one which specifically governs what a parent can and cannot do while attending a child’s games. The Judge specifically said misconduct might be a factor in any custody determination or decision. However, this opinion went further, and might even have application outside of Family Law, as the Judge said such misconduct could constitute harassment of other people such as coaches, other parents, and spectators subjected to inappropriate behavior. Imagine a youth team coach who decides that one day he has had enough from little Johnnie’s (or Jane’s, or Trey’s, or Yvette’s, or Abdul’s) parent and files a harassment charge against the parent in municipal court, or an infliction of emotional distress claim against them. Judge Jones’ opinion gives an easily understood yardstick of what may or may not be allowable behavior.

Remember parents, if you don’t play ball, you might get called for the foul. You won’t like being in the Court’s penalty box.
i D.W. v. M.W. FV-15-1025-16 (Ch. Div. 2016)