Forget Lance Armstrong. Kids need their parents to be good role models. That's right: You're the unsung heroes who teach honesty and integrity through your example.
What are the takeaways from the Armstrong story?
Don't worry too much about Lance Armstrong's effect on your children. "Kids are smarter than people think in terms of logic," says my 16-year-old. "I don't have one person I want to copy. I want to be my best self. There are lots of people who have certain qualities I admire."
Remember that you are your kids' No. 1 role model. "I think parents have a more powerful direct influence on role modeling than these distant, faraway, idealized folks," says Beverly Hills, Calif., psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. "If the grocer gives you too much money in change, model. Count it and say, 'Oops, Mr. Grocer. Here, you gave me too much.'" Armstrong let his own kids down tremendously.
Act like someone worthy of your kids' respect. "Kids don't get disillusioned by famous people acting like selfish fools," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "They get disillusioned by their parents acting like selfish fools. This fact should reinforce for parents the great importance of behaving with dignity and humanity and wisdom – at least, as much as possible. Your kids are watching."
Remind your kids that most people don't lie and hurt others. "Most people have a conscience, and they feel guilty when they do something wrong," says Walfish. They're not just all about "me, me, me." But someone with a narcissistic personality "is missing the computer chip that allow someone to self-examine and imagine the impact of their own behavior on other people," says Walfish. "Every human being has some aspect of narcissism. We look in the mirror. We put on makeup…But at the cost of destruction of other people, that is not the norm."
Chat about who deserves admiration. "The people to idealize and aspire to be like are the ones who treat people respectfully and with kindness, and who do things honestly," says Walfish.
Discuss the downsides to fame. "Enormous celebrity, enormous media attention, enormous power, and enormous wealth are often not very good for people," says Berger. "It is easy to get dizzy with the sense of one's own importance."
Talk about knowing people superficially vs. intimately. "It is impossible to really know much of anything about how the famous athlete or celebrity really acts and thinks and behaves with people when the news cameras are off," says Berger. "Celebrities may be good or bad, as people, but they are above all unknown to us in any real way."
Bring up feeling good about yourself. "Lance knew he was doping," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? "Even if he deceived others, he himself knew. You have to wonder how this undermined his own ability to feel good about his successes."
Don't get too hung up on winning. Avoid getting overly concerned with "the black and white world of winning vs. losing," says Hindy, the father of four. "The message to my kids is about calibrating your own inner gauges of accomplishment and success. There are many shades and colors."
Be clear that fibbing is wrong. "Make sure your kids know a lie is a lie is a lie," says pediatrician Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, and the mother of five. "These athletes have really placed themselves in a position of what they think they're gaining – the trophy, first place, the world record – is more important than the truth. We need to make sure our kids know that is not OK." Make sure your kids know losing is all right – "that they are not less of a person because they were on the losing team," says Barratt.
Don't place too much importance on one person. Does your child seem hung up on just one role model? You might mention other people he or she can learn from, says Barratt.
Point out truly admirable people and goals. It is, after all, Martin Luther King Day. "Today we should be focused on this great man," says Barratt. "He had a true passion for freedom in the United States." And as President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address today, "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity."
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