By Steven Schlozman, M.D
Lance Armstrong. Sammy Sosa. Mark McGwire. And now Ryan Braun.
These athletes share an awful lot in common. They’re all celebrated professional sports stars. They are now — and always have been — amazing athletes. And, they all fell hard from the exalted pedestals on which we seem intent on placing them.
Armstrong, Sosa, McGwire and Braun all used performance enhancing drugs. How do you tell your kids that their sports heroes are no longer heroes? Do the stars stop being heroes to your kids? How do you tell an eight-year-old that the homeruns Sammy Sosa hit are somehow not real? They sure looked real when the made their way out of the park…
A common and more general question thus rears its head for fans and, even more importantly, for the parents of young fans. What do we tell our kids when their idols fall from perceived grace?
We can use the ongoing issue of performance enhancing substances as a primer for these discussions. In fact, this is a more complicated issue than at first might appear. After all, we tend as a culture to have a binary view of our athletes. Spend five minutes on Sports Radio, and you’ll get that message. Athletes are either gods or they’re bums. There isn’t a whole lot in between.
In fact, developmentally, we tend to view the professional athletes in our world with the cognitive level of an eight-year-old. Kids that age looks at the rules of kickball and see one of two conclusions: The rules are either entirely right or completely wrong. It isn’t until around age 11 or 12 that children develop the capacity to hold two or more opposing notions in their heads.
However, we can start to teach these more nuanced cognitive skills to our younger children right now. The job of a parent is to set the developmental bar just a bit higher than where their kids currently sit. That’s how we help them to grow up.
If we stick to our simplified ways, we lose a valuable opportunity to display our more mature capacity for complex thought.
Our kids need to see us think carefully about these issues. Professional athletes might seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but there exists a good deal of data that athletes influence us in countless and profound ways. Just look at the positive regard Magic Johnson garnered when he announced that he was HIV+. With that one announcement, an entire generation of kids became more tolerant of a previously massively discriminated disease.
This idea isn’t terribly new. But I do think it is something we parents often forget perhaps because the stakes might not seem so high here (its just baseball). But the stakes are in fact high because we get a chance to model careful thinking and avoid reactionary thinking.
Try to encourage your kids, therefore, to consider these issues from multiple perspectives. Sammy Sosa’s drug use is not going to hurt your kid, but reactionary thinking about Mr. Sosa just might.
Here’s one way to start:
Because Sammy Sosa took performance-enhancing drugs, does that mean he didn’t hit all those homeruns? How do we define a homerun? Is it simply a ball hit out of the park, or is it a ball hit out of the park by someone who took drugs to power the force of the bat? Ask these question directly and honestly, and see what your eight-year-old does with the answer. This kind of inquiry, of course, sets the stage for an even more complex line of reasoning.
Are glasses performance-enhancing? What about a brace on your ankle if you’ve recently sprained your ankle? What about genetics, for goodness sakes? I mean no offense to my parents, but I certainly did not inherit from then any great skills at hitting a baseball. I could work for the rest of my life on dunking a basketball, and it just plain won’t happen. But there are kids I knew who could dunk when they were thirteen.
I wouldn’t box your kids in on these issues. Yes, it is against the rules of major league baseball to take performance enhancers, and it is for that reason that we do not see Mark McGwire in the Hall of Fame. This fits nicely with an eight-year-old’s sense of rules. And in no way are you going to condone taking these substances.
But why not, as one kid asked me? Why not take the performance enhancers? If everyone else is taking them, shouldn’t we all be allowed?
Well, no, because they’re dangerous. That’s what you can say. That’s a concept an eight-year-old can understand. Taking those performance enhancers is like playing in traffic.
You can say that we as a culture like to value our athletes, but we value our health even more. We do not, or at least should not, put a homerun in a place where it matters more than our lives. Countless sports movies have exactly this dilemma on full display, and as your child gets older you can use these movies as discussion points.
For instance, the man who plays with a broken back in Any Given Sunday or the young quarterback who takes an extra shot of medicine in his knee in North Dallas Forty. These movies are the subject of a different blog, but you can use the stories to generate thoughtful discussions.
In fact, that’s really what this is all about. Calm heads must prevail. Talk to your kids from multiple points of view. And don’t worry. You’re not condoning alleged or proven horrible behavior. If anything, you’ll be modeling the balanced thinking that you’ll be proud your kid displays as these things happen. After all, judging from the news these days, these events aren’t going to go away any time soon.
Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Please post or ask questions below, or tweet Dr. Schlozman at @zombieautopsies.
Gene Beresin, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, also contributed to this piece.