February 9, 2009
Last week was a tough one for Michael Phelps. I am betting it was equally tough for his mom.
Baltimore's Olympic champion swimmer was photographed smoking dope and, by week's end, the give-the-kid-a-break public reaction had turned ugly.
USA Swimming suspended him from competition for three months, and Kellogg's Frosted Flakes dropped him. Worse, a columnist compared him to dog-killer Michael Vick, and another declared that he had disgraced the nation.
There were camera crews following him and reporters were using megaphones, shouting at him to appear. He said - in what some called a fit of childishness but what I think was a perfectly reasonable response - that he was thinking about giving up swimming if this was the cost of continuing.
And news stories pointedly stated that his mother, Debbie, had failed to return reporters' phone calls.
What questions should she have been required to answer, I wonder? Are you ashamed of Michael? Angry? Has he let you down? Where did you go wrong in raising him? Can you guarantee that this won't happen again?
I don't think Debbie Phelps ever thought she was raising the greatest Olympic athlete of all time, let alone what we like to call a "role model for young people," as if physical gifts and personal integrity automatically came in the same package.
And yet here she is, having to watch her son suffer the pain of public humiliation while absorbing a dose of it herself.
She is a middle school principal, for heaven's sake, in charge of adolescents who are probably 10 minutes away from making their own decisions about marijuana. What is she supposed to say to them, and to their parents?
Debbie Phelps, who had been the family's rock and Michael's personal touchstone, is, again, undergoing a kind of scrutiny she never bargained for all those years ago when she was looking for a venue where her unhappy child could succeed.
Only this time, it isn't the fawning attention of NBC and the sporting press.
In an age when parenting has become something between a sacred calling and a professional undertaking, the Debbie Phelpses of the world are seen to be accountable for the mistakes of their children.
But as anyone who has a 20-something child - heck, a 13-something child - knows, you can talk and talk and talk until they slam the bedroom door in your face, but you can't make your children behave.
Until and unless children internalize the values the grown-ups have tried to convey - or learn from their own painful mistakes - parents live holding their breath.
How much worse it is for parents as public as Debbie Phelps. Her child's mistake echoed far beyond the neighborhood or the school. The world is watching, and the world is judging, and it is saying very unkind things about her boy. Every mother out there can imagine how much she is hurting right now.
My own children grew up with a family life columnist in the house. They figured out pretty quickly that they were going to be held to a stricter standard because everybody knew who their mother was.
They got in trouble anyway.
It was all I could do to say, "You do the crime, you do the time." I wanted to use whatever influence I had to get them a do-over.
But in the end, it was just a handful of teachers and fellow mothers who sat in judgment of my parenting and, whatever they said in private, they were kind to me in public. There was no international press coverage, no sanctions from sports governing bodies, no substantial loss of future income. There were no cell phone cameras.
If I were Debbie Phelps, I would probably rap Michael on the back of the head and ask him what he was thinking, if he was thinking.
Then I would repeat, for the record, why what he did was illegal, wrong and stupid, that he was raised with a different standard of behavior, with a different set of expectations. That he needed to live up to those standards for the sake of Michael Phelps, not for the sake of the role model of the free world.
Then I would probably make him his favorite foods for
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