Here's What To Consider When Your Kid Wants To Cheer

Season 2 of Netflix's Cheer covered Jerry Harris' arrest and the abuse he committed. Experts weighed in on what parents should expect from cheerleading programs and red flags to be on the lookout for.

Group of cheerleaders
Photo: Getty

I spent a significant part of my youth dedicated to the sport of cheerleading. A banner still hangs in my high school gym memorializing our squad's 2002 championship win. I was the co-captain of our varsity squad, on a separate competitive team, and would later go on to join my college dance team and coach on the middle school level. Cheerleading was my life.

As an adult, I later became a foster parent, mother of five, an instructor of positive and attachment-focused parenting courses, and an advocate for special education and children's mental health services. I've spent the past fourteen years immersed in the development of trauma trainings and parent education.

It's not often those two very separate worlds of mine collide, but Netflix's cheerleading-focused series Cheer and the arrest of its star, Jerry Harris, put cheerleading and childhood trauma both at the forefront of parents' hearts and minds. Harris was arrested in September of 2020 and charged with soliciting child pornography and sex with minors. He appears in both seasons of the show, now airing on Netflix. In light of the scandal, parents have been left to ask questions like "Is cheerleading safe for our kids?" and "Would I know if a trusted adult wasn't who they seemed to be?"

Here are some important things to consider when your kids want to cheer, or participate in any extracurricular activity with adult volunteers.

Cheerleading Can Be Great for Inclusivity, But That Can Come at a Price

Cheerleading is often criticized for the over-sexualization of children in the sport. Revealing clothing, music with adult themes, and pageant-style hair and makeup are prevalent in competitions, which can leave some families with a sense of discomfort. But others point to the positive aspects the sport provides for kids, such as building confidence, teaching teamwork, and getting consistent exercise. Working hard for a year and landing a difficult stunt in competition gives cheerleaders a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Cheerleading is also one of the more inclusive sports available. Unlike many other competitive athletics, multi-gender cheer squads are normalized from elementary age into college and beyond, so all identities should theoretically find a welcoming environment at every stage of the sport.

However, cheerleading still struggles to get recognition equivalent to other athletics. While some college scholarship funding is available, cheerleading is not sanctioned as a sport by the NCAA, so it is unlikely to lead to having university tuition fully covered for an athlete, even those performing on an elite level. Cheerleaders on the professional level are also notoriously underpaid, with many NFL teams only offering minimum wage to their cheerleaders and some cheerleaders recently taking their employers to court for requiring unpaid labor.

The sport also faces criticism for racial and economic disparities. Black cheerleaders in the NFL have called for change in regard to white-washed beauty standards, such as straightened hair and a preference for lean, thin bodies. Parents of young cheerleaders also have to navigate the high cost associated with competitions, additional tumbling lessons, travel, and camps, which can make participation in elite levels of the sport unattainable for athletes from lower income families.

Still, the sport's inclusivity is a definite draw. "Cheerleading is a sport any athlete can participate in," says Rachael Dorn, director and head coach of Southern York County Youth Club Cheerleading (SYCYC) in Pennsylvania. "Any body type and personality can be a cheerleader. I think cheerleading gives children the confidence to express themselves on a performance mat and showcase their athleticism."

Parents Should Seek Certified Programs and Background Checks

Dorn adds that parents should seek out cheerleading programs that focus on being age-appropriate when it comes to things like team uniforms and performance standards. She also recommends that, whenever possible, children should participate in teams with smaller age ranges, limiting the exposure of young children to older peers and less appropriate content. "As a coach, the personal brand of the program is important," Dorn notes. "For example, we do not allow our cheerleaders to wear any revealing uniforms showing their midriff. I take pride in putting children out on the mat with an age-appropriate team and routine."

When asked about precautions to help prevent child abuse, Dorn shares that the SYCYC organization where she coaches requires all volunteers to provide a criminal record check through the State Police, a Child Abuse History Clearance, and an FBI Criminal Background Check. These clearances are updated every five years for each coach. Their cheerleading coaches are also required to be USA Cheer certified and complete an athlete protection course, a safety and risk management course, and concussion awareness training. Parents seeking cheerleading programs for kids can ask to make sure your local teams follow similar guidelines.

Of course, coaches and volunteers are not the only potential predators to seek out children. In the case of Jerry Harris, an older cheerleader was preying on younger athletes. Clearances for coaches and volunteers would not necessarily have helped in that case. So what should parents know in order to protect their kids?

Equip Your Child With Language and Be Their Safe Space to Talk

Child abuse awareness extends far beyond the realm of cheerleading. Parents should be cautious with any adult who is spending time in close proximity to our children. Daycare workers, coaches, volunteers, and anyone working around children should be screened and fingerprinted in accordance with state and federal laws.

Licensed therapist Christen Sakales, LCSW, recommends that parents speak to kids about "red flag feelings" early and often. She recommends the book I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private. Sakales says it is never too early to start conversations about bodily autonomy, starting in small ways, such as asking kids for permission before touching them, and being accepting of the decision when they say no.

"I don't think it's a good idea to say 'Give So-and-So a hug,'" she adds. "I think the more appropriate thing to do is ask. 'So-and-So is excited to meet you. Do you want to shake hands or give a high-five?' And if they say no, then say, 'That's okay. Maybe another time.'"

But what if the worst does happen? Sakales reminds parents that, just as we saw in the case of Jerry Harris, abuse "is more common than people believe, and it's usually someone you know and not a stranger." It is common for abusers to have dynamic and likable personalities, which is part of how they groom their victims. Parents should be on the lookout for warning signs. You know your child best.

Sakales says that a warning sign is anything that seems out of the ordinary for your particular child. A child may seem more withdrawn than usual, or may seem very curious about specific acts. Sakales advises parents to broach the subject with children in an open and non-judgmental tone with language like, "I notice you have been very curious about [whatever it is] lately, can you tell me more about that?"

When a child develops a "red flag feeling" about an adult, then our job as parents is to respect that feeling and help our children navigate what to do. Sakales suggests that parents tell their children exactly what actions you will take, as the trusted adult, to handle the situation. If an adult is making your child uncomfortable, you can say, "I will make sure you are not alone with that person anymore. I'm going to talk to the administration." Clearly outline whatever steps you plan to take.

If you have reason to believe abuse has already occurred, then it is important to report the behavior so that it can be handled by the appropriate authorities. Explain the process to your child. An example of this could be, "I am going to call a special phone number to report this. People will come to our house to talk to you, and you can tell them what happened." Be sure to let your child know that they are loved and believed, and that you'll be there to guide them through the process, no matter what.

To report suspected child abuse, call 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

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