The Lance Armstrong Situation: Talking To Your Kid About Achievement And Character
After many years of speculation and more formal proceedings, Lance Armstrong is now facing extreme consequences. After being labeled as a “serial cheat” in recent investigations, he has lost prominent endorsement deals, most notably from Nike. And he has decided to step down as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded.
The magnitude of all this – especially if you have a child who is a sports fan – is daunting. We are witnessing the downfall of someone who not only had extraordinary athletic success but also transcended that via his inspirational fight against cancer (his personal one along with the work of Livestrong). So what kinds of conversations do we have with our kids?
For me, it’s both straightforward and difficult. The straightforward part is communicating that cheating and lying are always wrong. These actions should feel wrong internally – and most typically they will have severe consequences at some later point in time. And it’s a reality that sometimes people we admire turn out to have achieved their success in a way that does not make anyone proud.
But that’s where it gets difficult. Kids – and adults – develop admiration for these people because of their success. Someone does not rise to national and international prominence in the world of sports (or other worlds for that matter) simply because they work hard and do things the right way. The only reason this is a big story is because of the huge success – in fact domination – Lance Armstrong achieved in his field. And that’s where, I think, a challenge exists for parents.
The challenge is to find ways to let your kid know that you celebrate character as much as achievement. You can share how all of the evidence that is mounting changes how you feel about Lance Armstrong’s success as a cyclist. You can say that you are disappointed in his repeated denials and that it makes you question who he is and what he stands for. You can say that, in the end, it is likely that we will all be judged to a degree not only on what we achieved, but also how we achieved it.
But you can do something even more powerful in your own home. You can prize your child’s character above their achievement. You can be thrilled for them if they work hard at something – and focus on the positives of that – rather than have your reactions be tied to their success. You can reinforce their honesty and effort and determination without even referencing the outcome. And you can certainly promote the idea for them that all those things will help them achieve their successes in life the right way and prevent them from an epic fall of grace at some point in the future. There are interesting books out there now by Paul Tough and Madeline Levine on the importance of developing character traits in kids (both in school and at home). The prominent developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has decades worth of research to support the idea that you want your kids to learn a “growth mindset” of taking on challenges and putting out effort rather than focusing on outcome and success.
All of this stuff isn’t disconnected from eventual success. The idea is that kids who develop the right attitude will develop into adults who define their own successes in terms of both character and achievement. This isn’t about vilifying Lance Armstrong. It’s simply a wake-up call that we need to help our kids understand that what matters most is how you conduct yourself. Let’s face it, this may be difficult to remember the next time your kid has a soccer game or a dance competition or a big test in school and they don’t do well (and maybe it’s also hard to remember this if they do great). But then again, it should be easy to celebrate – in those very real moments – that you are raising your child to be the best person they can be.
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