When sports and siblings mix, there’s plenty of room for hurt feelings, animosity, and perceived favoritism on the part of parents. What can be done to combat this? How can parents explain that they can’t be at one child’s hockey game and another’s soccer match? What happens when a sister is the superstar and her brother rides the bench?
The Brotens of Roseau have certainly navigated these waters. This family produced three NHL skaters, including eldest brother Neal, who played on the legendary “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1997. But what few people know is that intermingled with the Broten brothers were two sisters, both of whom were athletic and gifted in their own right. So how did this ultra-competitive small-town family of seven keep each kid happy and healthy? More on that in a bit.
Jane McNaught, a psychologist from Edina, is able to help shed some light on what parents can do to help competitive children revel in each other’s accomplishments and how kids can deal with divided attention on the part of their parents. McNaught has 30-plus years dealing with both children and adults and offers up the following key bullet points:
Celebrate the Differences
“One thing that’s very important right away is to explain to your children that they each have different, yet special talents,” McNaught notes. “So even though one of your children might be exceptional at hockey, the other might have a different, equally special gift outside the arena. It’s very important to weigh these equally.”
McNaught also points out the importance of emphasizing to each child just how unique they are, and that nobody else in the world is just like them.
“Kids need to know they have a special place in each parent’s heart, and how precious they are.”
In the Broten family, not only were the boys multi-talented—each boy either ran track, played golf or baseball in addition to the on-ice exploits—but the sisters more than held their own. Siblings Tammy and Charlene spent their high school years on the varsity volleyball and track teams.
“We supported our kids by coming to as many events as possible,” father Newell Broten explains.
And with a glass half-full outlook, he points out that his children’s many athletic interests meant all their games were spread out over the school year, making scheduling conflicts less common.
Don’t Project or Push
To avoid breeding resentment rather than pride amongst siblings McNaught counsels parents against pushing their children to participate in a sport simply because the other sibling plays it.
“I knew of this one family where the younger daughter was actually the more skilled athlete,” McNaught recalls. “But the parents wouldn’t let the older daughter quit playing sports until the time came where she actually didn’t make varsity, but her two-year younger sister did.”
This sort of embarrassment can be avoided by letting children take more of a lead in terms of sports participation as they get older. As for the Brotens, Newell explains that there was never any pressure to venture into uncharted waters for their children.
“Our kids never really wanted to quit anything,” Newell said. “All we ever did was encourage them to do their best, and to do so while keeping their mouths shut,” he added jokingly.
The biggest part for Newell in this respect was that he coached his oldest two boys in the lower levels of hockey despite never once playing, as his first passion was basketball.
“Dad didn’t really know much about hockey,” Aaron added. “But one thing he knew for sure was you needed to work hard.”
Teach Children that Equal and Fair
“There will come a time when one kid has hockey in one town, and another someplace else,” McNaught says. “Typically in a two-parent household, this responsibility can be split pretty easily.”
But when it’s one parent, or it’s impossible for both parents to be in both places, it can present a tough situation. McNaught recommends alternating between the children when schedules don’t collide. But these moments can also be a valuable chance to teach siblings that, in life, compromises are inevitable and that keeping score over which parent attends whose game isn’t practical.
Keep Expectations in Check
It can be a harsh lesson, but eventually every child athlete encounters someone who is stronger, faster or more skilled at his or her sport.
“As children climb the levels of competition, it often won’t take long until your child finds an athletic contemporary,” McNaught notes. “Knowing that there are always better athletes out there will keep an element of humility in a child’s head, and make them more likely to exhibit good sportsmanship.”
Newell Broten agrees, adding that from an early age he emphasized the ideas of hard work and humility in all of his sports-playing children.
Set the Example that Family Equals Team
“Enforce the idea of the family as a cheering squad,” McNaught recommends. “When parents model praise, the children eventually catch on, and that cohesion for each other will eventually reciprocate.”
And while the Broten girls often cheered for their brothers from the sidelines as a part of the cheerleading squad, their brothers reciprocated from the stands when able. This sibling revelry was no accident, however, it was something the Broten parents instilled from the beginning and continue to this day.
“They’re absolutely still each other’s biggest fans,” Newell notes with pride.
From a psychological standpoint, the most unrealistic the expectations lead to the most intense disappointments.
“Don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s the coach’s fault or the Dman’s fault or the ref should've called a penalty. Help them see a pathway out w/ optimism.”
Failure is a part of life. But what happens after that failure is just as important.