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The Olympics and Parenting: How Does Watching Make You Feel? (Really)

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

I love watching the Olympics, but somehow, it pushes my parenting buttons. “Oohing and ahhing” at young, elite athletes makes me question my own parenting. I wonder (though not voice out loud), Should I have pushed my own kids more and helped them get to the Olympics? I never verbalize this because it reveals the embarrassing belief that I had the power to get my kids there.

I, like many of you, will continue to question the decisions I made as a parent until I die; but in the meantime, I must contend with my insecurities. Here’s the bigger issue: Why do we parents constantly wonder if we should have gotten our kids to a different place than where they already are? It doesn’t matter if our kids are 9 or 29, we all doubt our decisions. I think we do this because we feel peer pressure and deep down, we make parenting a whole lot more complicated (really) than it needs to be.

First, we assume that we have the power to make our children into people that they aren’t.

I see this all the time with parents in my practice. They tell their kids that they’re smart, capable, and stellar athletes, able to accomplish “anything and everything” that they want. They do this because they are trying to be really good, encouraging parents. The problem is, it hurts kids.

Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success recently wrote a New York Times article about studies showing that when kids are told they are smart over and over, they lose their motivation. I haven’t seen studies, but I’ll bet the same is true for athletes who are constantly told that they are outstanding. They simply don’t work as hard. By “encouraging” kids in this manner, in fact we may be taking away their motivation.

So why do we do this? Because we believe that we have the power to make our kids into elite athletes, scholars, musicians, etc.  Of course we have influence, but it is limited. Our job as parents is to encourage kids to work hard at whatever the endeavor they’re in. If they become outstanding, our encouragement will help them get there, but it will only help.

Second, we can’t tell where we stop and our kids begin.

None of my kids ever expressed an interest in being an Olympic athlete, so why do I sit and wonder if I should have done something differently? To be painfully honest, I would have felt like a more successful parent if my kids had gone to the Olympics. There you have it.

But I don’t think I’m alone. I think that subconsciously each of us wants our kids to shine so that we feel better about ourselves. The problem is, this makes our kids crazy.

Really great parenting follows three rules:

1. It accepts that kids are separate people given to us for a time to love, care for, and cherish. We’re not called to make Olympians, child prodigies, or even the next President. We’re to help nurture and love who that child is meant to be.

2. It understands that we have less power than we believe we have. Yes we have influence, but all of our pushing and stretching won’t make an Olympic gymnast if she doesn’t have the extremely rare combination of talent, temperament, and inner drive.

3. Finally, great parenting clearly demarcates the child from the parent. We do for our kids what is best for our kids, not for us. If we are brutally honest, most of the time we push our kids—not to make them feel better—but to make ourselves feel more successful.

We really do make parenting far too complicated. Instead of trying to be coach, sponsor, psychologist, mentor, friend, motivator, teacher, drill sergeant, or buddy first and then Mom or Dad, we need to reverse the order.

Put the list aside and start first by being Mom or Dad—the one who loves, accepts, guides, and nurtures the child in order to help him or her live in a pretty tough world.

How does watching the Olympics make you feel? (Really)

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