Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When Role Model is 23, Do We Give Him a Break?

This is the headline of the AP story about swimmer Michael Phelps and the bong incident that made the front page of the Indianapolis Star this morning.

“A young man appears to be smoking pot at a party,” The story begins. “Big deal, right? Our new president has admitted to doing just that in his youth—inhaling, too—and it didn’t detail him one bit. So should we expect more of Michael Phelps?

“It depends on what we want and expect our youthful role models to be: perfect, or flawed like the rest of us.”

It went on. “We should grab this teachable moment,” said Lisa Bain, executive editor or Parenting magazine. “It’s a good opportunity to talk to your kids about role models. They’re human. They’re not Gods.”

True. But does that mean that an athlete who signs on to be a role model and earns millions of dollars to do the job, should be judged by a standard that might be called “But I am not a God,” when he does something he’s not supposed to do? Not to mention the fact that, duh, when you sign a contract to do a job and you don’t do that job, it’s fair grounds for being fired.

Anyway. If we're going by the "But I'm Not a God" standard, wouldn’t the teachable moment be, figure out how to make people think you are a god and then you can do whatever you want to do—regardless of the illegality or stupidity involved as long as you admit afterwards that you weren't a god, after all. Is this really what we want our kids to believe? (Even if, sadly, it seems all to often to be true?)

The most crazy-making part of the article: Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer of the Porter Novelli public relations agency, “…blames [Phelps’s] handlers, who should have done a better job protecting him from the foibles of youth and from piles of money."

Honestly, this pisses me off so much, I don’t dare comment. “Inappropriate language,” my grandkids would undoubtedly observe, if I did comment and they read it.

‘He’s probably a nice boy who didn’t get enough guidance,’ Salzman said—especially after a drunken driving arrest after the 2004 Olympics.”


Could it be that there weren’t serious enough consequences after that DUI to make Phelps understand that it’s a really, really bad idea to break the law? Don't we owe it to a nice kid (or any kid, for that matter) to help him understand how the world works? (Remember OJ? He got a pass for years, then...didn't. He couldn't have been more surprised.)

The article went on to explore the changing perception of marijuana and the role of technology, “…when a visit to a party can be recorded on a cell phone camera."

Finally, in the second-to-last paragraph, Carol Weston, an advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine pointed out, “He knew he was being hired not just because of his accomplishments in the pool, but also for his accomplishments in the pool, but also for his ongoing behavior in public. It’s part of the deal.”

Thank you, I thought. A rational voice.

This article makes me insane for so many reasons I hardly know where to begin. It reflects what I’ve long believed to be a serious problem in the way many Americans raise their children—especially if those children are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and/or talent.

According to them, if you’re smarter than everyone else or can play a sport, paint, sing, or play a musical instrument, better than everyone else, the rules do not apply to you. If you break one, no matter how serious, it wouldn’t be fair for the consequences involved to interfere with your path to success—and if a decision made by a teacher, coach, judge, or employer does put your future at risk, you may feel perfectly legitimate in considering yourself a victim.

The truth is, being gifted is a (very) mixed blessing: it sets you apart from others, makes it difficult to navigate the real world. Gifted children need more not less structure in their lives. They need to be prepared to live in a world that claims to value intelligence and creativity above all else—but doesn’t. Not at all. They need to learn to get along with people who aren’t gifted because they will have to deal with these people in their day-to-day lives, and many of them will have the power to affect how successfully they will be able to translate their talents into meaningful work as adults.

They especially need to be taught from the time they are small children that a gift, whether for swimming, writing, or mathematics is just that, a gift. The proper response to any gift is, Thank you. A gifted person is not better than other people, just luckier. He has a head start. He should be grateful for that.

Of course, nobody’s perfect. Who hasn’t smoked marijuana? (Well, me, but only because I was too scared.) But more than one thing can be true at the same time, and those things can be contradictory. Most young people smoke marijuana at least once; the fact that smoking marijuana is illegal is stupid—it’s no more (and may be less) dangerous than alcohol; the consequences of smoking marijuana, whether for the first or thousandth time, can have consequences that profoundly affect your life, and those consequences are likely to be greater, or at least more visible, if you’re famous—especially if you’ve signed contracts worth millions of dollars to be a role model for youth.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, who understood the absurdity of the world better than..anyone, “So it goes.”

Phelps decided to do what he did. The consequences that his employers (and they are employers) decide are appropriate may or may not significantly affect his career. But the questions that matter are, If the consequences are severe, will he consider himself a victim? If they’re not, will he be smart enough to see and be grateful for the fact that he’s been lucky again—and decide it’s time to "handle" himself and grow up?

A question Phelps might ask himself as he figures out where to go from here is, "What's more important, what the market expect of me or what I expect of myself?"

That said, I truly hope this turns out to have been a "teaching moment" in his life.

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