From the jaw-dropping opening ceremonies to the incredible Michael Phelps, from the hilarious Bela Karyoli to the behind-the-scenes Beijing trivia, for the last ten days, our entire family has been addicted the 2008 Olympic games. But all of the drama and the glory and the showmanship has especially resonated with my six year-old daughter, whose occupational goals have varied over the years from movie star to rock star to television star to Broadway singing sensation, to her latest – you guessed it – Olympic gymnast.
In the past, my response to her spotlight-craving aspirations have been nothing but supportive. After all, she’s spunky, she’s cute, she’s not entirely tone deaf, and she’s got a great sense of style – which seems to be pretty much all you need to qualify for rock or movie-stardom these days. But a gymnast…well, a gymnast she’s not. It’s not that she’s uncoordinated, per se – she can hit a softball off a pitch better than a lot of boys her age – but when it comes to maneuvering her body, let’s just say that I wouldn’t describe her as lithe and graceful. This is a kid whose legs are covered in mystery bruises because she falls down or walks into things so often that it’s impossible to pinpoint the source of each individual hematoma. I love her to death, but living with Harper is like living with Lucille Ball, or Cameron Diaz in one of those movies where she’s always tripping over things. (Running down the hall) Mommy, you won’t believe what happ- bam! And there she is, splayed out on the floor like an area rug. And as if her klutziness wasn’t bad enough, she’s also entirely inflexible. Her straddles get about as wide as a slice of pie cut by an anorexic, and she can barely touch her toes, let alone do a split. So when she first voiced her Olympic aspirations the other morning, I didn’t quite know what to say.
My children do not suffer from any lack of self-confidence. From the day they were born, my husband and I have clapped and cheered for every accomplishment, no matter how insignificant, and we’ve always encouraged their interests and told them how great they are at whatever it is they’re into at any given time. So it’s not unusual in my house to hear my daughter say, apropos of nothing, I am sooooo good at latch hooking. Or for my son to announce that he’s really, really, good at fighting with light sabers. To which I always, always, wholeheartedly agree.
But I also recognize that there is such a thing as being over-confident. My husband and I call it the American Idol Syndrome. These people who can barely even hold a tune audition for American Idol, and then they’re totally, utterly, genuinely stunned when the judges tell them that they’re awful. And you look at them there, all teary and in denial, whining about how those judges don’t know anything, I AM a great singer, and I WILL be famous, and you just know that that kid’s parents clapped and cheered and told him all his life that he’s the best singer in the world, and now here he is, making a fool of himself on national television, all because his mom and dad never had the heart to level with him.
So, back to Harper, the Olympic gymnastics hopeful, who has convinced herself that hovering eight inches above the floor with one leg straight in front of her and the other leg completely bent behind her is, in fact, a split, and who is now practicing pathetic-looking, cartwheel-like moves across my bedroom floor. When does gymnastics class start again, she wants to know, panting from her efforts. Because I need to start practicing for the Olympics.
I realize that I’m going to have to make a choice here. I could a) tell her the truth and crush her dream, or b) lie in the name of self-esteem and fake encourage her down a road that will, undoubtedly, one day lead to her being publicly humiliated by a former pop star and a heartless British record mogul. The choice is tougher to make than it sounds, though, so I opt instead for logical deterrence, and explain that real gymnasts practice every single day, before and after school, and they compete in meets on the weekends. But she just shrugs. Okay. So sign me up for gymnastics every day. I explain that the implications of such a rigorous gymnastics schedule would mean waking up at five am for practice, and that it would also mean no art class, or dance class, or playdates with her friends. It would just be gymnastics. All the time. Which is met with typical, six year-old logic: So? I can do all of those things again when the Olympics are over. I sigh. I admire her determination, but she’s left me no choice. I go for option a), truth/dream crushing. There’s talk of natural abilities, of girls her age who can already do backflips and handsprings and jumps on the balance beam, of time commitments and sacrifices that I’m not prepared for her to make. And as I’m explaining all of this, as I’m telling her, for the first time ever, that there’s something I don’t think she can achieve, I can see her face fall, and my heart falls with it. I’m wrong, I realize. I never should have said anything. Oh, to be a parent, I think, is to walk such a thin, delicate line.
She mulls my words over for a few moments, her face clouded with disappointment. Okay, she tells me, sadly. I guess you’re right. But I want to at least go to the Olympic trials. I smile at her, and tell her that she shouldn’t listen to me. If you want to try and go to the Olympics, then you try and go to the Olympics. And it occurs to me that maybe dream crushing and fake encouragement aren’t the only choices, after all. Maybe the best thing for me to do is to just be quiet, and to let her figure out what she can and can’t do for herself. Oops.