Ever since Americans watched and enjoyed Michael Phelps' mom's poolside emotional roller coaster in Beijing in 2008, it seems that parents are fair -- and amusing -- game for TV cameras.
That was certainly the case for Lynn and Rick Raisman, who watched their 18 year-old daughter, Alexandra ("Aly") compete in the Olympic Women's Gymnastics qualifying round. This 56-second clip of the Raismans' agony during their daughter's routine is both the most amusing and disturbing Olympics footage I've seen so far.
As a viewer of the Olympics, I confess that I found the Raismans' clip pretty funny. When I saw it live the night of the competition, I laughed aloud, called for my husband, rewound our Tivo and played it for him. He laughed almost as hard as me.
As a parent, I confess that I've certainly squirmed through my own children's sports. When my son plays goalie for his soccer team, he handles the pressure better than me. That's when nothing but my 11-year-old's own feelings are on the line. I can't imagine how it feels to walk with a child through the zenith of international competition.
I'm sure the Raismans are supportive parents. I can't imagine the amount of time, energy, convenience and money they've sacrificed for their daughter's Olympic dreams. I also don't know whether they knew they were being filmed (although given the pretty decent sound quality, they might have been wearing a microphone). Yet it's possible that even parents with the best intentions communicate damaging messages to young people.
My friend and Fuller Seminary colleague, Chap Clark, has spent years researching the systemic abandonment of young people in contemporary America. On an obvious level, children and teenagers can feel abandoned in their families when parents are separated or divorced and move out of the home.
But more subtly, young people can feel abandoned even when parents are present but are pursuing their own agenda for their kids. That happens when a 13-year-old feels like her dad cares more about her grades than her, or when a 17-year-old choosing a college senses that his mom's priority is bragging rights instead of selecting the best academic fit.
Or maybe it can happen when an 18-year-old Olympic gymnast watches her parents' response to her routine. Imagine being Aly and watching the footage afterwards, which I'm guessing is likely given the buzz it's received. Would the images of her parents comfort and empower her, or would their stress jolt her sense of herself and her abilities?
On a similar note, the Raismans happened to be sitting near a host of younger kids. What are they learning about parents and families by watching the Raismans agonizing through Aly's routine?
Even more broadly, what are young people watching the Olympics at home -- those you and I know -- learning about what matters to the adults in their lives? As they see parents so riveted on (and obsessed with) their daughter's performance, is it possible that they subtly start to think parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, religious leaders and neighbors are more focused on their external behavior than their internal character?
I'm not trying to criticize the Raismans. It's the Olympics, and they probably deserve a "free pass" for some helicopter parenting. What I am trying to ask is this: What messages are we adults communicating to young people -- our own kids and others -- when we seem to live vicariously through them or when we subtly communicate that we care more about what they do than who they are? These days, young people don't feel like adults love unconditionally, whether they "stick" their gymnastics landing or not. We adults might think we're communicating our love to our kids, but often it's so bound up in conversations about activities and behaviors that it feels like love with strings attached. No wonder many young people don't trust adults. We have not proven ourselves to be trustworthy.
With the children and teenagers in your life, you have the chance to show that you are crazy about them. That while you want them to work hard and avoid mistakes, you will like and love them the same even when (note it's "when" and not "if") they fail. That your love for them dwarfs any of their failures.
Kids are watching us far more than we realize. Like sponges, they soak up our stress and our attitudes more than we know. The nation's TV cameras might not be pointed our way, but young eyes are. From the way we interact over breakfast to the way we respond to their goals and grades, may we show young people that our priority is who they are, not how they perform.
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