This reading group guide for Parents Behaving Badly includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Scott Gummer. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Ben Holden and his family move from New York City back to his hometown in rural California, he reenters a world of his former classmates, aging parents, quirky siblings, and the agony and ecstasy of Little League baseball, where the parents are often more intense and into the game than the kids. The first novel by journalist and author Scott Gummer, Parents Behaving Badly is a satirical, often hilarious portrait of suburban life and modern parenting. Gummer expertly weaves together provocative and timely storylines, ultimately illuminating what it means to be a true leader, be it in the form of a role model, coach, or parent.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Early in the story Ben and his aging father, Coach, share a tender and, for Ben, curious moment when his father gently pats Ben’s hand. (p. 18) How does this brief moment, and Ben’s reaction to it, shed light on his relationship with his father?
- As a high school freshman Ben made the bold choice not to play baseball for his father—because of his father. Ben remembers thinking, “I would rather not play baseball at all than play for you [because] playing for you doesn’t look like any fun at all.” (p. 65) Before Coach kicked Ben’s older brother, Fred, off the high school team for having marijuana, Fred experienced a similar sentiment: “He’d have quit baseball if he could, but that was never an option.” (p. 00) Contrast their experiences with those of Homer King, who was taken in by Coach after a tragic childhood experience left him orphaned, and who gives an eloquent eulogy for Coach at the funeral.
- Consider the character of Del Mann. He issues godlike rules to the team, swears at the kids, instructs a talented newcomer to tank his tryout so Del can draft him, and runs his practices like military boot camp. How much of his behavior seems to be that of an over-the-top, satirical antagonist, and how much seems to be frighteningly realistic?
- The theme of aging and its effects on friends and family is addressed in Parents Behaving Badly. The story opens with Ben’s realization that his father is getting old, and as a result of the mental decline of Jili’s mom, Mitzi, Ben decides to move the family across the country back home to Palace Valley. For Ben, every reason not to uproot the family is “ultimately trumped by caring for Mitzi.” (p. 143) However, he also thinks “the seed of regret grows roots of resentment.” (p. 144) What repercussions does the move have on all the members of Ben’s family?
- The book explores the complexities and challenges of modern parenting, one of the most prominent for Ben being new technology. He ruminates, “Now kids hook up and break up via IM and txt msgs. Vowels are an endangered species. To Ben’s mind, social networking could not be more anti-social. People no longer talked; they tweeted and poked and posted to one another’s walls.” (p. 155) Of Ben's three children, his daughter Kate is most involved with technology. Without it, do you think she would have a different relationship with her father? Or is Ben being old-fashioned in his thinking?
- Issues of marriage and fidelity recur throughout the story. Ben and Jili categorize their sex life using Starbuck’s lingo. Ben has an ongoing infatuation with his high school crush, Liza Heston, though he is “not naïve enough to believe that Jili had never thought about other men.” The stakes are raised when Ben has sexual fantasies about and then a physical encounter with Cyn. But does Ben cheat? Is he unfaithful to Jili, or do his thoughts and actions stop short of crossing the line?
- How is Homer King’s status as a role model affected immediately after he announces that he is gay? (p. 216) Does this change as the story progresses? How do his actions compare with those of many of the “parents behaving badly” in the story?
- Ben’s visions of what it will be like to bump into Liza Heston again are dashed when he encounters her in a pub. (p. 272) Ben is surprised that she has not aged well and that she misremembers the events of graduation night, which Ben remembers with perfect clarity. What does this passage say about the elusive qualities of memory and perspective? How does it relate to the idea that “you can’t go home again?
- How does becoming coach of his son's team help Ben gain a better understanding of his father than he was able to when Coach was alive? As the story explains, “the picture long etched in his mind of his father as a brute between the chalk lines gradually blurred as Ben got a taste of the crap Coach had to stomach for a half a century.” (p. 256) How do you think this experience affects Ben as a coach in his own right? How does it affect him as a parent?
- When Del is ultimately exposed as the one who pulled the infamous prank on Principle Middleton (p. 281), is his tearful reaction enough to redeem his character?
- The opening dedication in the book is “for every parent who lives for—not through—their kids.” (p. 4) Indeed, there are many examples of youth sports parents whose obsession with the game overshadows everything else. Discuss some of the examples that stood out to you and why. How do the actions of the parents seem to affect their children? How does the behavior of the Little League fathers contrast with that of the mothers? What implications are made about the values of modern society?
- What are the similarities between coaching and parenting in the story? What are the differences? Do good parents make good coaches and vice versa?
- The book explores the idea of learning to appreciate true value. Consider examples from the book, including Ben’s apprenticeship with Olle Olleson, learning more about his father as both a coach and parent after becoming a coach himself, his encounters with Cyn and their effect on his marriage, and even the bad behavior of other Little League parents. How do these experiences help Ben develop a better appreciation for what really matters?
A CONVERSATION WITH SCOTT GUMMERThe story is primarily told from Ben’s perspective, but you chose to write it in the third person rather than the first, creating a little more distance between the reader and Ben. What affected this decision?
- Ask each of the members of your group about their experiences with youth sports, either as a child or an adult. Are the experiences similar or different than those portrayed in the book? These can be shared verbally at your meeting or you can request participants to write a paragraph or two in advance and bring to discuss.
- Serve classic baseball refreshments at your book group meeting. Some ideas include chili dogs, a nacho bar, peanuts warmed in the oven, kettle corn, or Cracker Jack. You can even make baseball-decorated cupcakes! Experiment with your own favorite ballpark foods.
- Find a Little League game in your area to attend—you can go to www.littleleague.org and use the “Start/Find a League” tool. Be sure to observe kids and parents alike! Discuss your impressions and see how they compare to what happens in Parents Behaving Badly.
I never thought about writing it from Ben's perspective, I suppose, because it would have been too partial. Ben's vision is clouded in the beginning of the story, and as the story goes on he achieves clarity—about his marriage, his father, his children, etc. Also, in this way readers can consider Ben in the same way they consider other parents and coaches.You have coached youth sports at almost every level. How did your experiences inform this story?
I had a solid knowledge of the inner workings of youth sports from every angle—as a former player who was never the star of a team, a parent of kids who both were and were not All-Stars, a recreation league assistant coach, a varsity high school head coach, a member of the board of directors—and I believe that aided in my ability to paint a credible portrait of all that is both wrong and also wonderful about youth sports.This is your first work of fiction. How did the writing process differ for you compared to those with your nonfiction books, like Homer Kelley's Golfing Machine or The Seventh at St. Andrews?
It was incredibly liberating not to be shackled by facts. I liken nonfiction to interior decorating: all the pieces are there, and it is the author's job to arrange them. With fiction every decision is a blank slate, which is at once daunting but empowering.Do you hope your nonfiction fans will follow you into the realm of fiction with this book? Or are you aiming at an entirely new audience?
I would hope that people who have read my previous works might give me another chance, but each book has an audience unto itself and I am deeply appreciative of anyone who will spend their time and money with my work.Have you personally experienced the level of “badness” displayed by some of the parents in the book? Can you share an example of an episode that particularly struck you?
Every mom and every dad of every boy and every girl involved in competitive youth sports has a story about some misbehavior that made them cringe. My hope is that people will read this and have a laugh, while at the same time thinking to themselves, “Am I that parent?” Much like Ben’s family in the book, you also moved with your family from New York to California. How much of this event influenced the plot of your story?
One of the joys of writing fiction is the opportunity to delve into uncharted situations. I am happily married, but through Ben I was able to explore issues of infatuation and infidelity. For my wife and me, we were thrilled to move back home, but I was interested in what it would be like to move home against your will but for all the right reasons. The behavior of many of the parents in the story, although bitingly satirical, can also border on disturbing. Would you describe your work as a modern social commentary? Do you think kids in the environment you describe can still benefit from Little League, or have things gone too far?
My book is absolutely an indictment of how insanely intense youth sports have become, but it is my passion for and belief in the benefits of organized youth activities—not just sports—that compelled me to write a book that skewers the absurdity of how parents are sucking all the fun out of the games for the kids.Do you ever meet your fans in person at book readings or events? If so, what is the most valuable or helpful aspect of meeting a reader face to face?
I feel humbled and honored anytime someone takes time out of their day to seek me out for a chat about my work. The most satisfying aspect is when people say they suggested or shared my book with a friend. That is the true measure of success. How does meeting fans in person differ for you, compared to chatting with them online on social media sites like Facebook?
I am always happy to hear from readers, all the more happy to meet then in person. Being a write, is a lot like being a chef in that it is a solitary endeavor best shared with friends.What are you working on now? Will any of the characters you created in Parents Behaving Badly make it into a new work of fiction?
I am working on a new novel, another suburban satire. I had not thought of having any characters make a cameo, but if I do it would likely be Liza Heston. I loved writing her.