This week kicks off the camp season for so many of our children. Whether they are attending a local day camp, sports camp, talent camp or sleep away camp, one thing usually rings true — there is a competitive element to to all of them. It can be in the form of an inter-camp competition, color war, auditions for the annual play or even just a friendly game of soccer. Like it or not, kids are exposed to the concept of winning (even if they’re not supposed to be keeping score), losing, and everything in between.
This summer is particularly exciting because the 2012 Olympic Games will be held in London. From July 27 to August 12 you can pretty much say “cheerio” to all of your regularly scheduled television programming and start cheering for the Red, White and Blue. It is a great opportunity to introduce your children to all of the many great characteristics that make up an Olympic athlete. There’s the concept of being dedicated – putting in all of your free time into training and perhaps “missing” out on what other kids their age may be doing. Being the best of the best requires sacrifice, drive, determination, ambition, a desire to win, and grace when you lose. It’s an opportunity to “compare” where your child is in their sport and to show them how far they can still go. Whether it be bettering their time, learning new skills, or becoming more disciplined, Olympians have a way of humbling those who are merely competitive athletes.
One Olympian I am excited to see compete this summer is 14-time Gold Medal winner, Michael Phelps. As a former competitive swimmer myself, it is a pleasure to watch someone who defies everything you’ve learned about what physical traits make up a good swimmer and what the best possible time is for a particular race. Phelps, standing at 6’4” and 200 pounds, has shattered records – 29 of them in fact – and I am particularly excited to see what he does at this year’s Olympics, especially because this is very likely his last.
So how does your child become the next Michael Phelps? Not necessarily a gold medal winning, record breaking, swimmer – but how can you help turn your kid from a mere participant into a force to be reckoned with? If you ask his mother, the lovely and spirited Debbie Phelps, it all comes down to one thing — time. I was honored to participate in a round table lunch discussion with the Olympian’s mother and beautiful and charismatic sister, Hilary, last week at Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park Restaurant.Deebie Phelps with NY area bloggers
When asked in different ways what made Michael into “Michael Phelps” and sisters Hilary and Whitney into highly skilled and accomplished swimmers themselves, Debbie Phelps’ answers were overwhelmingly about dedicating time to the sport and dedicating time to your children. She spoke of time spent in the pool, at practice and at competitions. Time spent studying the sport and doing schoolwork, whether at home or in a car, traveling from school to practice and back again. And finally, time spent having frank, “bold” discussions with your children regarding the ways of the world. Debbie Phelps spoke often of positive discipline — not yelling at your children, but rather speaking to them, giving them options and empowering them to make good decisions.
Debbie Phelps has a lot of practice with positive discipline, as a former educator and current middle school principal in an at-risk neighborhood of Baltimore, and told us exemplary stories of using the technique on her own children. There was the time when Michael threw a tantrum after a “bad” race in which he didn’t break a record he set out to break, and the time when Hilary wanted to go to a midnight showing of a movie, even though she had an early morning practice. Debbie Phelps was dedicated to seeing her children succeed, and was determined to give them the skills to do that on their own. She did not shy away from the uncomfortable topics of Michael’s past transgressions, including a DUI when he was 19-years-old, and an unfortunate picture of him smoking from a bong in 2009. Debbie spoke of her sadness and anger, and also of Michael’s contrition and embarrassment. In the aftermath of those events, and most kids will mess up more than a few times in their life, Debbie and Michael turned their proverbial lemons in to lemonade by lending their names, faces, and time to different organizations that champion awareness for underage drinking and drug prevention.
Debbie is herself an active speaker for The Century Council’s Ask, Listen, Learn Initiative which seeks to prevent underage drinking and driving by educating parents about the realities of the problem (namely that by the 8th grade, 50% of children have already begun drinking alcoholic beverages) and by giving parents the skills to create an open and honest dialogue with their children about the dangers of both drinking alcohol and the risky behaviors it inevitably leads to. In short, Debbie’s children succeeded because they had a devoted mother who didn’t just tell them what to do or force them to be what she may have had in mind — she taught them skills at an early age that they would need later in life for both their success and failures, and though they were left to their own devices, they had the unwavering support and love of their mother. For many parents, there are a lot of lessons to be taken from Debbie’s philosophies and techniques.
Debbie Phelps chronicles her life and her children’s upbringing in her new book, A Mother For All Seasons, an easy read that is both funny and heartbreaking at times. Although she has faced situations many of us have not, she is extremely easy to relate to, and tells her story with a grace and dignity that I can only imagine may have been hard to muster at times. After reading the book and meeting Debbie and Hilary in person, I am not only Team Michael for this summer’s upcoming games, but am Team Phelps all the way.