Any parent who has ever sat on the sidelines at a school sports match can identify with the parents of Olympic athletes. Most parents know the physical and emotional toll it takes to compete at any level, let alone on an international stage like the Olympics. While the athletes should take sole credit for their accomplishments, NBC has thrust many of the parents into the spotlight, acknowledging their sacrifices and contributions during years of training and competition.
Not everyone, however, is ready to award Olympic parents kudos for a job well done. The video of Aly Raisman’s parents watching their daughter compete in gymnastics quickly went viral and the critics labeled them “helicopter” parents, saying the pair’s histrionics not only took away from Aly’s performance but also may have harmed her chances for gold. Michael Phelp’s mother has come in for her share of barbs, and Ryan Lochte’s mother, herself a swim coach, was too candid talking about her son’s social life.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Chinese athletes, many of whom competed at the games without that parental cheering squad. The saddest story is that of the Chinese diver Wu Minxia who after winning her third gold medal was told that her grandparents had died years ago and that her mother was battling cancer. Like many Chinese athletes, Wu Minxia was sent to live in a state-financed sports facility at a young age where she trained hard and had no contact with her family. (Much has been made of Gabby Douglas, the American gymnast who won gold in the all-around event, leaving home at age 14 to live with a host family in Iowa so that she could train with Olympics coach Liang Chow. But Gabby made that decision, not the government, and for the two years she was gone, she remained in close touch with her family in Virginia Beach).
For every parent cheering on a son or daughter in this year’s Olympics, there are perhaps thousands out there shuttling their children to practice, buying sports gear, paying for coaches, and sitting through endless meets and games. How much support is too much, not enough? When should a parent push or pull back? That balancing act is always a challenge. Each child is different and may need less or more support at different points along the way. Here are some things to think about:
Introduce your child to different sports and hobbies.
There’s a reason all those programs for tots are so popular. Small children are eager and enthusiastic and willing to try anything—at least once. Gymnastics, ballet, soccer, swimming, pottery, painting, puppet making, whatever, all can make for an enjoyable afternoon or a lifetime of fun.
Don’t be too quick to quit.
When the novelty wears off, some children want to quit. This is the time for a slight nudge and a chat. Is the desire to quit a snap decision? Does it have more to do with the other children involved in the activity than the activity itself? Is the teacher or coach the problem? Don’t allow your child to throw in the towel without some investigation.
Let your child take the lead.
There’s a point where no amount of parental pressure will encourage a reluctant child to continue. Yes, there are parents who succeed in having a son or daughter stick to gymnastics or basketball well after the child’s enthusiasm has waned. You’ve probably noticed that angry, kicking child at some events. This is not a battle that will be won. Surrender. It’s time to move on.
Try to temper your child’s expectations.
Your son may dream of becoming the next Kobe Bryant and your daughter the next Serena Williams. Hard work is important, but so is talent. There are many sports that we can all enjoy throughout our lifetime, even if we never receive a medal. Help your child understand that, too.
Show up when invited.
Does your child want you there cheering on every kick of the soccer ball? Or would she prefer that you drop off and pick up? If your presence is tolerated or even requested, behave yourself! Don’t coach from the sidelines or criticize the coaches or other players.
The victory is your child’s, not yours.
It’s tempting to accept all those accolades about the wonderful parenting job you’ve done that resulted in your child winning an award. But it’s his journey, not yours. Step back and let him enjoy the spotlight.
Most of all, trust your instincts and listen to your child. Derek Jeter’s parents come to most, if not all, of his games. The TV cameras captured his father in a stadium suite applauding Derek’s 3,000 hit, a homerun. (Derek’s mother was attending her daughter’s, Derek’s sister’s, baby shower and couldn’t be there). Derek paused to salute his dad. No one calls Charles and Dorothy Jeter helicopter parents. Rather they are called good parents.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of several books for parents of young adolescents including The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical MIddle School Years.