Why the Olympics Terrify Me as a Parent

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Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2014 Olympics, and like many people, I looked forward to this commencement with enthusiasm. At the same time, the amount of skill, investment, and dedication these Olympic athletes put toward their sport is as unsettling as it is inspiring.

Here’s where the unsettling part comes in: many of these athletes are teenagers. Many more began their journey to the Olympics when they were four, five, or six years old. Right about the age of my son.

I can’t help thinking, holy cow, do I have to decide now if I want my son to have a shot at the Olympics?!?

It sounds absurd, but these Olympic parents made choices when their kids were young. Choices that would affect the rest of their childhood and, most likely, their lives.

This, in itself, is nothing new to parenting. As parents we make choices all the time that have a huge effect on our kids. It’s the limited window of opportunity that makes the Olympics unique. Extreme athleticism has an expiration date. For certain sports in particular, such as figure skating, that expiration date is not very far into adulthood. How did these parents decide to give their kids a shot at the Olympic journey?

(MORE: 3 Ways to Respond When Your Kids Get Frustrated)

Here’s the other part that’s unsettling: when you look at the childhood of Olympic athletes, some of the popular wisdom about parenting goes out the window. Google “overscheduled kids” and you’ll find a plethora of articles warning parents about the perils of enrolling your kids in too many extra-curricular activities. But no one talks about the Olympics in these articles.

We non-Olympians only think about the games during those three weeks they’re actually airing on television. We forget that all over the world, thousands of kids are spending hours and hours training for these events all the time. And the financial cost is staggering. If we do think about these Olympians training, we may find it fascinating and disturbing, but most people aren’t going to say those kids should quit and diversify their time more. Because look at what they accomplish!

(MORE: Why Backyard Sports are Dying and What’s Really at Stake)

So that’s the reality check of the Olympics for me. That even when we come up with some fairly decent sounding rules for parenting (make sure your kids have plenty of time for unstructured play and a well-rounded childhood), we may find a point where we throw them all out the window. Where we discover something new about our kids that totally changes everything. Where we stumble upon a talent or interest we didn’t see coming—or on the flip side, a struggle or failure we didn’t anticipate. We write our own parenting manuals every day and hope we’re making the right choices, because what else can we do?

My husband and I are taking our preschool-age sons on their first ski outing at our local ski hill soon. I anticipate that it will amount to nothing more than a fun memory, a few tears, and perhaps a budding interest in a new hobby. But I guess you never know how the decisions you make today will lead to new parenting choices tomorrow. We may find a point where we have to throw the rules out the window.

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