My husband and I were trading words of disappointment and disgust after Lance Armstrong's recent admission to doping when our sports-loving 9-year-old said: "What are you two talking about?"
I told him that a well-known bicyclist had taken performance enhancing drugs to win his races.
"Why would he do that?" asked Sam, prompting a very serious and important discussion about our personal decisions and their potential repercussions. Although these questions can put parents on the spot, they give us the chance to give children tools to deal with difficult situations.
"It's a great way to take a current topic and weave it into your own family value system," says Dr. Laura Saunders, a licensed psychologist at Hartford Hospital who was struck by the atmosphere of peer pressure that Armstrong created amongst his team members. "There are so many opportunities to talk about what it's like when a bully wants you to do something that you don't want to to. Is it OK to be different?"
While we encourage our sons and daughters to be confident and independent, we should also tackle the topic of cheating, often a temptation for a child.
"Sometimes they think about cheating because cheating is a way to make it look like you're doing your best, but cheating really makes you feel worse in the long run," says Saunders. "That's a moral lesson in so many areas, whether it's school, home or a board game, that moral lesson goes across the developmental lifespan."
Moms and dads can explain "roid rage" using age-appropriate language. "Steroids can make you very anxious; steroids can make you gain weight; steroids can make you act funny," says Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist at Hartford Hospital. "An older child might think, 'Oh, I saw this on TV. This is going to make me run faster or do better in whatever sport I'm doing, so I'm going to take it'."
They also need to be educated about the dangers of swallowing a medication intended for someone else: "In normal doses, children may take steroids if they have croup or something like that, and that's fine. If it's prescribed for you, it's OK."
For many children and teens, a beloved athlete's fall from grace can be confusing or upsetting, but it can become a teachable moment.
"We're all human, we all make mistakes. It's important once you make some mistakes that you find a way to tell the truth and fix them," says Saunders, who believes our most profound growth comes after our missteps.
Perhaps Armstrong will prove to become a different sort of role model for our kids: no longer a sports hero, but instead a man committed to rebuilding his life by making amends and discovering the virtues of honor.
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