Could you be the parent of an olympian?

As the families of the world gather around their TVs to watch olympic athletes perform unbelievable feats of strength, speed, and agility, I wonder how many mothers out there are thinking to themselves: Could my child be an olympian?

I already know my children will not be for various reasons, not the least of which is because I know I don’t have the drive or the discipline to do what the parents of olympic athletes do. Who wakes up and makes breakfast at 5am for practice everyday? Who drives to and attends all those practices, meets, matches, games, tournaments, and competitions? Who pays for the training, the uniforms, the various fees, the travel? Who sacrifices their own interests and ambitions (and maybe those of their other children) for the success of their young olympian? The parents, of course! And while the athletes themselves certainly have natural talent, discipline, and drive of their own, there’s a reason the media frequently highlights the parents–they are a big reason their child is where they are.

But it isn’t just my love of sleep and a lack of self-discipline that leads me to the conclusion that my kids will not be headed to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The other reason is the one that matters most: being an olympic athlete is just not a priority in our family.

As much as I admire anyone who qualifies to compete in the Olympics, I’m just not the type who could eat, drink, sleep, and breathe only one thing for years on end. Both my husband and I agree that we are definitely the well-rounded, Jack-of-all-trades type, and there’s no doubt that will rub off on our children. Do we still prioritize success? Of course we do! Just not of the olympic variety.

Even so, every time the Olympics rolls around and I hear the personal stories of the athletes and their families, I start second guessing myself as these tough questions roll around in my head: Am I doing all I can to nurture the potential in each of my children? Should I be pushing my children harder? In what areas do I want my children to succeed? Should I choose for them early on what I think they should succeed in or let them find their own way and in their own time? Which areas should take priority? Is it different for individual children? Isn’t being a kind, moral, hard working person the most important thing anyway? Isn’t it even better if you can be all those things and also succeed in academics/sports/music/the arts? Won’t the process of trying to succeed in those areas actually help them become those good people on the inside?

It reminds me of the discussions last year surrounding the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Would Amy Chua’s daughter have become a concert pianist if she hadn’t driven her incessantly to practice for hours on end at the expense of other “normal” childhood activities? No way! But was that the right sacrifice to make for that child? The right priority? And therein lies the debate. In the end, only the parent (and eventually, the child) can answer that question anyway, but it’s always going to be a tough one to answer.

And this leads me to the question of all questions: What’s the definition of success anyway? Is it simply being the best in something? You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule which says that–contrary to the popular belief that success is often based on innate talent–anyone can master a skill with just 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (In case you’re wondering, that’s 3 hours of practice every day for 10 years.) So is that the formula for success? 1) Choose a “talent” for your child. 2) Drive them to do that thing for 10,000 hours. 3) Sit back and enjoy success. Somehow it doesn’t seem that cut and dry.

And what happens if you put in your 10,000 hours and you still don’t come out on top? Watching the Russian female gymnast cry after earning a silver medal made me feel sad for her. Not because she “lost”, but because she couldn’t rejoice in the silver medal. A silver medal in the all around women’s gymnastics competition at the Olympics seems like a huge accomplishment in my mind. (But what do I know about the inner workings of an olympic athlete!) Personally, I would hope that both my children and I would always feel their personal best was worth a gold, even if it meant they came in second (or third, or fourth).

How important is it for you to have your child be the valedictorian, the first chair violin, or the captain of the football team? How often does our definition of success reflect our own priorities based on societal pressures or our own unfulfilled childhood dreams, and how often is that definition driven by our children’s priorities and goals? And at what point do we let our children decide these things for themselves?

Whatever conclusion you come to, and I’m certainly still working it out for myself (maybe I’ll figure it out by the time my last child graduates from high school!), I think the most important parenting lesson to be learned from the Olympic experience is this: Success, no matter what your definition, can be achieved as you help your child learn how to set goals and then make the sacrifices and do the work to reach them. Sounds simple enough, right?

Do I think Olympians and their parents are crazy to do what they do in the quest for a gold medal? A little bit. But I also greatly admire their ability to prioritize what matters most to them and then sacrifice and work their tails off to achieve success.

As for me and my kids? Well, we’re happy to sit back and watch it all happen on TV.

QUESTION: How do you define success? Do your children think the same way? How do you prioritize your child’s success?

CHALLENGE: Work on finding your personal answers to some of the tough questions above. Talk them out with your children.

One comment

  1. Martin

    Does leaving towels on the bathroom floor forecast future Olympic greatness? If so, I have three potential Michael Phelps at home. Unless “towel hanging” becomes a new event in 2016. If that happens, we are out of luck.

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