Meet the ‘Sparents’: Why a 200-pound slotback made his most valuable catch off the field

Sparents: Why caring adults like neighbours and friends matter
WATCH ABOVE: Have you ever heard of the term "sparent" or spare parent? These caring adults have been around forever, but we are learning more about their impact. Laurel Gregory explains.

You don’t often see a 6’3″, 2oo-pound football player admiring the freshly-painted nails of a 13-year-old girl. But for Adarius Bowman, the pop of pink on his friend’s daughter’s fingers is symbolic — a measure of how much Oakley has grown since he first met her as a five-year-old navigating autism spectrum disorder.

“Oakley’s gonna be turning into a woman!” Bowman said with pride.

“Aw, you stylin’… You stylin’ there, Oaks.”

The Edmonton Eskimos player has been a fixture in the lives of Oakley and Parker Ralph since 2010, when he befriended their dad, a teammate on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Brock Ralph had recently separated from the girls’ mother and was a single dad.

READ MORE: Canadian household is changing — More single dads, more same-sex parents, fewer young families 

“It was a situation that required some juggling,” Ralph said. “Obviously, I still needed to go to practice every day and be mentally and physically ready to play a football game on the weekend.

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“Getting them and figuring out how I was going to make everything work, the support that I needed and got from people — especially from Adarius — was critical.”

Bowman has been on speed dial ever since. Ralph, a teacher and football coach at an Edmonton high school, calls on him anytime he needs a babysitter or someone to make the girls dinner or pick them up from school.

“I took on the role of uncle. Uncle A.D… I actually had to sign in one time at school and that’s what I wrote!”

As the child of a single mother of five, Bowman is well aware of all the so-called “sparents” or spare parents who supported him. He’s certain he wouldn’t be where he is today without numerous uncles, coaches, guidance counsellors and teachers.

“The majority were not even family members,” Bowman said. “Teammates (he points to Ralph), coaches that I still talk to today.”

Listen Below: Scroll to 13:14 to hear more about how children benefit from having sparents

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Child Trends, a U.S.-based non-profit centre devoted to studying children and youth.

Researchers looked at data from a National Survey of Children’s Health to determine the impact of caring adults on children aged 6-17. They discovered children and adolescents with a kind of mentor outside their home were more likely to “remain calm in the face of challenges, show interest in learning new things, volunteer in the community, engage in physical activities, participate in out-of-school time activities, and be engaged in school.”

Toronto-based psychologist and parenting author Sara Dimerman says children also benefit from recognizing early on that it takes a village.

“There’s a whole world out there, there’s a whole lot of safe adults, available to them to be able to either step in when their parents are not able to or to add a dimension that their parents aren’t able to.

“Maybe they have a certain career that the child may be interested in later on so they see them as a peer and just to be there in a way that parents often can’t.”

Dimerman says parents can harvest these caring adults by inviting friends over to the house, getting to know their neighbours and connecting older children with trusted adults who share their interests.

“I know as a parent myself, as many skills as I have and as knowledgeable as I am about parenting, I’m still a huge annoyance especially to my 18-year-old.

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“The way that I’m going to be able to reach her as a parent, or even have her come and talk to me, is different than if she was going to be talking to another adult who is able to look at her from more of an objective perspective and is going to respond to her in a different way.”

Over the years, Bowman has expanded from not only being Oakley’s sparent, but an advocate. He’s the founder of Adarius 4 Autism, a not-for-profit group working to raise awareness and broaden programming for children, teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

READ MORE: Little boy’s touching video explaining his autism to his classmates goes viral

Bowman points out “those challenges” may come his way now that he’s an expectant father.

“But I thank this family for giving me a little more preparation… The girls motivated me so much to let me know I can do it.”

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