The coverage of the London Olympics has spent a lot of time focusing on the role of parents. Well, the role of Moms. Dads are more or less left out of the picture. You have probably seen P&G's ads about Moms, or the now viral video of Aly Raisman's parents watching her perform (see below).
Do I think these stories about children wanting to devote all of their time to a specific sport are lies? Not necessarily. It is possible that there are five-year-olds out there who start out wanting to swim every day and then grow up wanting to devote the kinds of hours and commitment to it that it must take to become an Olympian. I am sure those children exist. But the parent needs to be heavily involved – from driving them to practice, to paying for coaching, to spending their weekends attending games.
Where is the line between the parent as supporter and the parent as manager? Where does it stop being about what the child wants and start being about what the parent wants for the child? The Motherlode blog of the New York Times recently asked this very question in a post titled: “Olympic Parents: Who Sacrifices (or is sacrificed) For Gold?” Its' author, KJ Dell'Antonia asked the poignant question, “...would you (should you, could you) let your child do what it takes to be up there on that screen?”
I have four-year-old twins. They are just starting to develop their own interests. This fall, one will take baseball, and the other will take gymnastics. I can see them falling on love with a sport and taking lessons for years. But there is a difference between taking lessons and turning something into a career. Would I wake my child up at four in the morning to go to practice? Would I watch my child struggle to stay awake during school and try to get her homework done on the bus on her way to a game? Probably. If they were passionate about it, if they loved that sport with their heart and soul, and, of course, if they were still able to succeed in school. But what about the day, one that would almost definitely come, when they said, “Mom, I don't want to go to practice today.” Or, “Mom, I don't want to do this sport anymore.” How would I respond?
One option is to say, “Listen honey, it's your life. If you don't want to do this anymore, fine. If you would rather go to a movie with your friends than go to practice for two hours, fine. This is about what you want.” After all, it's different from saying they want to quit school, which – for me – would not be an option. But quitting a sport? Something that at age 14 should, perhaps, be considered no more than a hobby?
The other option is to use the opportunity to teach a lesson about commitment. About teamwork. About sticking with things even if you decide you “don't like it.” There are a lot of things we have to do in life that can't just quit when the mood strikes us – like jobs. Do we want our kids to learn to stick with it and persevere, or to give up and do what is easier?
Should the decision be based on their talent? On how naturally gifted they are at a sport? If your child warms the bench in baseball, is it more permissible for them to quit then if they are the star of the team? I would hope not. If the lesson is about perseverance, then how skilled they are should have nothing to do with it.
I suppose that the beauty of sports is that they have seasons. I can see myself saying, “Stay with the team for the rest of the season. Don't let down your team. When the season is over, then you can decide what you want to do.” But that would not work with Olympic caliber athletics. They don't stop training at the end of the competitive season. Just as our jobs as adults don't have seasons. Because becoming an Olympic athlete is that child's job. They are working and going to school full-time as a pre-teen. I imagine that there are some children who flourish under those circumstances, but I am left with the feeling that is just doesn't seem fair to ask so much of a child.
My approach to this might be considered a cop-out. I would be willing to support my child no matter what, as long as it was what they really wanted to do. But the second they say, “I don't wanna,” do I then back off and leave all the decision making up to them? Part of parenting is providing guidance for children. What kind of guidance am I providing if I just leave all of the hard decisions up to them?
I guess that for now I am glad that my children want to do nothing more than paint and play in sprinklers. If nose-picking becomes an Olympic sport, however, then I am in trouble.