“Hey Mom, Watch This!” Even Olympians Work to Make Their Mothers Proud

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Proud mom Debbie Phelps gives son Michael a kiss at the Beijing Olympics.

After pulling off an incredible gold medal win in the Olympic 100 meter backstroke, the bubbly 17-year-old phenom Missy Franklin announced to reporters: “I knew my parents were going to be proud of me, no matter what.” It struck me as somewhat odd that the accomplished young swimmer, still dripping wet after the performance of a lifetime, thought to proclaim her parents’ approval to the world.  On second thought, I guess it should come as no surprise.

Though I’m more than twice Missy Franklin’s age, I still feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I get a glimmer of my parent’s approval — whether it’s about my appearance, profession, or how I’m raising my children. Maybe that’s in spite of, or because, it doesn’t happen often. Not that I’m bitter about it. I chalk up the difference between the relationship Missy Franklin has with her parents and the one I have with mine to a gaping generation gap.

I’m a product of depression-era parents who believed their responsibility to their offspring was primarily to raise independent adults. My four siblings and I were expected to make good grades at school. A report card with mostly A’s got this response: “Why didn’t you get straight A’s?” When I developed the nerve to play on an all-boys’ soccer team, there not being any girls’ teams in our town, my parents didn’t praise my gutsiness. Instead, my father asked me, after each game, when I was going to score a goal. And when I won my first and only swimming trophy, a second place one, my parents wanted to know why I hadn’t come in first. Had they actually bothered to attend the swim meet, they may have had a better sense of the stiff competition.

Today, not attending your child’s sporting events would be considered heresy. But my parents frequently told me to catch a ride to softball practice or a swim meet, and it seemed completely normal to me. In fact, hearing the countless Olympic athletes declare their eternal thanks to their parents for their unwavering support that got them where they are today — on the medal stand, to be precise — seems sort of foreign to me.

Statistics strongly suggest my hunch — my parents’ seeming indifference was typical for their era. In 1986, only around 50 percent of parents said they’d talked with their grown children in the past week, compared to 87 percent in 2008, according to a May 2012 article in the New York Times. I was a young adult in 1986, and I recall receiving a perfunctory, five-minute phone call every Sunday afternoon from my mother in the payphone that hung in the hall of my dormitory. Similarly, the same article reported that almost 90 percent of today’s parents give advice to their grown children monthly, compared to less than half of all parents in 1988. On the few occasions my parents offered me advice as a young adult, it generally fell on deaf ears.

Fast forward to 2012, and the Olympics, which I realize provides extreme examples of symbiotic parent-child relationships. The cameras captured several mothers in the stands who looked as if their children’s anxieties had been directly transferred to them. Some were wide-eyed and pale as their children performed their routines; others were too nervous to even watch.

I’ve got to admit, I can relate to these moms. When my son steps on the diving block At Meadowbrook before a swimming event, or approaches the pitchers’ mound in a high-stakes baseball game (if there is such a thing in little league), I can feel my heart thumping a mile a minute. And when, at a student art exhibit at Zoll Studio, I approach one of my daughter’s paintings that I’ve never seen before, I often feel a lump catch in my throat. Call it pure, unfettered mother’s pride.

I believe my children know how proud of them I am. Without going overboard—at least I try not to gush too much—I do tell them when I think they’ve done a bang-up job, especially when I can tell they’ve put in 100 percent. How this will serve them as they move into adulthood is anybody’s guess.

For at some point, you’ve got to dig deep within yourself to make your own dreams happen. Look at Missy Franklin, who also told reporters not only how proud her parents were of her, but also that she’s been waiting to attain her dream of Olympic gold for 17 years. She didn’t say a thing about it being her parent’s dream. And that’s key.

When a kid shows talent and love for a skill, be it swimming or spelling, a parent’s pride and support can help that talent thrive. But when it’s a skill that the parents want the kid to master — perhaps mom or dad was a prodigy swimmer, or had always wanted to be one — even when junior shows lukewarm interest or talent, things can get ugly.

As for attitudes like my parents’, which made me believe they were never quite satisfied with my level of achievement, I think the results can go one of two ways. A stubborn, innately confident kid might want to prove his parents wrong, trying to nail straight A’s or a first place swimming trophy. As for me, a shy kid with shaky confidence, I grew up believing I was at best mediocre in pretty much everything I did.

So for all those young, glowing athletes who show toothy smiles when they win big and keep their heads up when they don’t, I salute them and their parents in the stands. For these Olympians to reach the dizzying heights they’ve achieved, they have to believe in themselves. And so do their parents.

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