Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Phelps, Marijuana and a Suddenly Empty Pedestal

My eight-year-old thinks Phelps is the coolest dude ever to walk the earth. With a devotion hitherto only accorded to cricket, soccer and football, he devoured the swim events at the Beijing Olympics this past summer. All his other activities were planned around the swim event schedules. The timing of the Olympics couldn't have been more apt - my son's team was on a roller coaster ride of victory and defeat on a weekly basis with the summer league competitions. We encouraged the enthusiasm, calling him down to watch HBO interviews with Phelps and a 60-Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper and Phelps.

This is not to say Phelps is a role model. Yes, when it comes to swimming technique or work ethic in the pool, he is hands-down a parent's dream example. When my son struggled with his finishes, all we had to do was invoke Phelps' or Jason Lezak's example or show him the videos on Youtube and he would get it in a flash. But beyond his exploits in the pool, Phelps did not figure into any of our daily conversations.

For me, the most interesting character in this story was Debbie Phelps, his mother, and to a lesser extent, his sisters, also swimmers of star quality. A single mother, Mrs. Phelps raised three kids while holding down a full-time job, found a good outlet for her son's formidable energies and guided him to a coach who could recognize his talents and nurture them. Phelps himself has acknowledged repeatedly that whatever his accomplishments are, they are to be attributed to his mother.

My son must have somehow gleaned this. Perhaps my admiration for her came through whenever he heard me talk about her (usually when she was on TV), because the first non-rhetorical question he asked when he learned about Phelps' tryst with drugs was, "What did his mother say?"

But first came the shock, shock I could see on his face. No, Phelps would never do that. How could he? I can't believe he did that. Drugs? Why would he take drugs? Which drug was this?

And if you're wondering about eight year-olds and what they know about drugs, believe me they know a lot. Each year they have a "Say no to drugs" campaign at school where all the students, even the first-graders, must sign a pledge not to use drugs. Last year was his first year in a public school in the US and I was horrified. I am a subscriber to the "ignorance is bliss" school of thought, but who am I kidding? Whether the school or the parents tell them or not, they know about these things and a lot more. It's better that they have a credible frame of reference rather than floating around in a vacuum of misinformation.

When he asked what drugs they were, I first pretended I did not hear it. He ranted some more and came back to that question. I hemmed and hawed. Do I tell him that it was just marijuana? That a whole section of this country thinks it's nuts to have laws against the use of marijuana? That there is a raging debate around the medical use of the drug and its legality? Do I tell him that it's just a 23-year-old having some fun with kids his own age?

In the end, I copped out, deciding to keep it simple. I said it was a drug I did not know about. But that it was against the law and that the cops were looking into the matter and that he might end up going to jail for it.

Now his face crumpled. He knew Phelps' training for the World Championships in Rome was set to begin any time. Then came the line I was completely unprepared to hear. Where did he even get it? So Godfatheresque. "He has brought real dishonor to his family!"

I turned my face away. I had to stifle the giggle that was threatening to bubble up. I quickly changed the topic and got him busy with prepping the table for dinner.

But he came back to it again, later in the night. It really bothered him. He was trying to reconcile the image of the super-successful swimmer with the guy who did something stupid, something he should have known never to do, that might lead to him not swimming. I just let him talk and we agreed that it was the stupidest thing to do, that his mother must be feeling bad. Where is his dad, he asked at one point. And I told him what little I knew.

There is a strain of opinion that opposes letting Phelps off scot-free. So what if he's the best swimmer in history, asks The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon. On the other hand, Let a kid be a kid, says Kathleen Parker.

As for me, the idea that celebrities should be role models just took another hit, an idea I was leery about already. Why should sports stars and film stars and politicians be role models? I say this not only from the perspective of where our children should source their models from, but also from the perspective of the celebrities. Why should they be forced to put on a persona and behave well in public just because they are famous? There was a big brouhaha about Tiger Woods and Charles Barkley are few years ago. So what if Tiger Woods said the F word when his golf ball sailed clear of the grass and landed in the Pacific Ocean? So what if Charles Barkley behaves badly off court? Why do we celebrate them when they accomplish nearly inhuman things but bring them down the minute they show us they are human? Why are they in charge of teaching our children what is right and what is wrong? Sure we could emulate so-and-so's work ethic or so-and-so's volunteer work, but their lives as a whole are not for our children to copy.

In fact, these episodes, however distasteful they may be, are great life lessons about actions and their consequences. Celebrities' lives are exemplary when they're actually human.

That being said, I do hope there's some good news about Phelps soon.


Unknown said...

Celebrities are chosen as role models, mainly because a publicity machine forces them down our throats on a daily basis, and children are very susceptible to this.

Personally, I am torn on the subject. As you say, a celebrity should not be forced into being a role model, but essentially it is part of the job. Everyone wants a good life, and not everyone expects their name to be a household word, but when the time comes, they should remember that everything they do is in the public eye.

There is also accountablility, professionalism, and yes, responisiblity. Someone like Miley Cyrus has a responsibility to the company that pays millions to keep her in the public eye, and has a responsibility to her fans as well. Like it or not, she chose the job, and is the idol of millions of little girls. Her assinine behaviour is not acceptable because she lives a terrific life because of those millions of fans.

Now, I would rather see someone like Phelps be a role model not because of their behavior, or because their name sells products, but because they have a discipline and drive to achieve something through hard work. Now THAT is where the true shame lies... his body is his job, and abusing that shows yes, he is human, but no, he doesn't care about that job as much as we thought he did.

Unfortunatley fame brings with it a lot of stress, and also low people who want to glom off that fame, or pocket some of that fortune. Temptation is there, but you would think it would be easier to resist when you know you can lose everything with even one dumb mistake.

Should he be exempt for his celebrity? No. Everyone should be treated equally, regardless of how much cash is in their back pocket, or how many autograph requests they get that week.

I am sorry that your child has been hit so hard by this, but it is a credit to you as a parent that you have a child who is asking such questions, and weighing the issues himself. Kudos!

I'll stop here because comments shouldn't, as a rule, be as long as the post! JOHN :0)

Anonymous said...


valid questions about the worth of celebrities as role our house, the husband is the sports fan (I'm indifferent to most professional sports), but he made it very clear, that the athletes are just that - athletes, who do very well in their chosen professional field, not necessarily anywhere else. A necessary distinction, I think.


Anonymous said...

Celebrities are role models simply because we are bombarded with (sometimes) media created images that either put them up on a pedestal or pull them down and through the mud and they are talked about so much. Either way, as you said, celebrities ARE human too. It is great that you ar able to have a dialogue with your son about this.

Anonymous said...

Why do we celebrate them when they accomplish nearly inhuman things but bring them down the minute they show us they are human? Why are they in charge of teaching our children what is right and what is wrong?

Interesting, well- drawn out post... Perhaps the key is to let the child know that the role models are humans too, that they didn't choose to be what's asked of them...

Sujatha Bagal said...

John, thank you for a thoughtful comment. And as you will notice, I don't have anything against long comments! :)

Yes there are many angles to this issue, but I do think there is a distinction between a celebrity being accountable to sponsors and a celebrity being accountable to fans. A celebrity has two choices - behave in a way that the fans appreciate or not behave in the way the fans appreciate and pay the price. Their job is to sing or dance or act or swim or play tennis or whatever. Just because people want to watch what celebrities do and pay money to watch it doesn't mean they have a duty to behave. If they misbehave then they pay the price - fans may peel off or the sponsors may withdraw their support. So the desire to not do stupid things comes from a need for self-preservation, not from a need to teach their fans the difference between right and wrong.

I agree, it would make parents' life so much easier if Miley Cyrus did not pose for VF at 15, but for how long is she going to be catering to the tween set? She's looking to move on. This is where the parents need to step in and not let the idolation go too far. I don't yet have personal experience with managing kids going ga ga over a celebrity or being a "fan". I'm sure I will at some point, but I do have experience being a child at the receiving end of a chilling stare from a father who had no patience with his daughter wanting to watch a certain song on TV so she could watch a certain actor who happened to be in it. Yes, the media exposure is probably a gazzillion times what it was earlier, but am still not convinced that parents are the ones that ought to be taking more responsibility for what their kids do, not the celebrities their kids happen to like.

M, that's a valuable distinction as well. Makes a whole lot of sense.

Siri, thanks. :)

N'ville Mom, helping children temper their expectations that way seems very useful.

Choxbox said...
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Choxbox said...

My 8 yr old does know about drugs - from me. Like how excess alcohol is bad and smoking not cool, drugs are not okay. Folks do it, its their choice - this has been my line.

I too am of the opinion that just because a person is great at sport/any other, (s)he should not be expected to display 'perfect' behaviour and is entitled to make choices about things like anyone else. In the same vein, if (s)he is doing something against the law, the same set of rules should apply as it would to anyone else.

Going back to the discussion we had the other day, I think folks around them will influence kids a lot more, at least at this point.

But hey totally empathise with C's reaction. Sigh.

Btw you bin tagged.

Nino's Mum said...

good lord, that's his first brush with the my-idol's-clay-feet. Must be traumatic. At the same time I believe it's a very important lesson for the kid, especially.
Like you, I too am a firm believer in the ignorance is bliss philosophy, and I have a while to go before I face the same questions you're facing now.
I do believe though that if celebrities keep showing their 'human' side often - and by this I mean their faults - our children will learn to appreciate the grey in life.
Phelps has big fans here as well, and I've been having a string of email discussions about him with my nearly 80-year-old grand uncle, who's perhaps as disappointed as C!

Nino's Mum said...

ps: love the new look. very sorted!

Winnowed said...

Unlike your son, the average fan does look up to his sporting hero and movie superstar as a role model. I don’t think it is terribly fair to impose a duty on sports heroes and movie stars to act as responsible role models. However, it helps a lot if our heroes and stars can maintain a squeaky clean image. You are very lucky in having such a sensible boy!

Anonymous said...

I'm still giggling over the "dishonor" bit :D I think you made the wise decision re: educating him on marijuana. Unless you and the other parental unit like to smoke it up, there's time enough for him to learn about it and make up his own mind. And who knows, by the time he grows up, it might be legal. It already is - halfway at least - in India.

Love the new design.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Chox, that is completely understandable, that you'd be direct and take the no-nonsense approach.

NM, that's so sweet! The e-mail discussions with the uncle. :) I totally agree about learning to appreciate the grey. I'd rather that celebrities not be some mythical people. And thanks! Me love the layout too. :)

Winnowed, thanks. :)

Ams, I feel so too - there is time enough for the gaps to get filled. I was just talking to another mom earlier today and she said they had to have the talk with their then 10 year old about Kobe Bryant and his exploits.

Roshni said...

haha!! love the 'dishonour' statement. Godfatherish or else typical of an old hindi movie dialogue!!
The points of view you present are really interesting. I am truly of two minds as to how celebrities should behave, but you do make a convincing arguement about us letting them be!
I think the best option is to bring our kids up to think for themselves and not have their actions and thoughts dictated by any other human being, no matter how famous they are!

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