Michael Phelps’s mom, Debbie Phelps: Minimalist Parent

Photo credit: AP/Gus Ruelas

My heart leapt with joy when I read this interview with Debbie Phelps, mother of America’s Favorite Swimmer, Michael Phelps. In it, she talked about the importance of backing off as a parent, even when your kid shows Olympic talent.

“Children have to do what they enjoy,” Debbie told “You have to let your kids find what’s best for them and what their own niche is.”

When the mother of a 14-Olympic-medal-winner says “don’t push your kid in sports,” I’m thinking that’s pretty good advice.

“Letting kids find what’s best for them” is one of the messages of my book Minimalist Parenting (the manuscript for which my co-author Christine and I just turned in to our editor HOORAY). Most kids won’t grow up to be Olympic athletes, but most will grow up to face a challenge — be it sports-related, job-related, or family-related — that will require strength and determination to handle. The best shot at success comes, in part, when you’re fueled by your passion. Passionate connection to a sport/cause/relationship contains enough potential energy to propel you through the rough spots no amount of parental pressure can touch.

Debbie (we’re on a first-name basis, she and I) also talked about the importance of education and independence. My Minimalist Parenting filter calls that the confidence and skill that comes from past experience with “hard,”

Once when he was at a competition at age 14, he reached for his goggles and realized he didn’t have them. When he looked over at his mom, she just lifted her empty hands. “There was nothing I could do about it! He hasn’t forgotten his goggles since,” she laughed.

Can you imagine? Star swimmer kid (Phelps’s coach identified him as such years earlier), and his mom has the restraint to let him risk losing a competition in order to teach him to be responsible for his own stuff. Man, I like this lady.

I’m seeing this with my own son in a decidedly less athletic way: he has just started studying Hebrew in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah next summer. He’ll need to meet with a weekly tutor and study for at least a year to be ready. This is a kid with an allergy to scheduled events that “take up” his free time.

While we’ve always encouraged a Jewish education, it’s not set in stone, and both our kids know that. But when our son attended both his cousins’ Bat- and Bar Mitzvahs, something inside him clicked. He attached the notions of “accomplishment” and “respect” to this event, and decided that was important to him. Now, he’s flying through Hebrew lessons without complaint.

“Backing off” isn’t the same as “hands off;” kids will inevitably need help getting through hard times and moments of self-doubt. And success isn’t guaranteed. If anything, the challenge of accomplishing something difficult — even improbable — makes it all the more meaningful.

So the next time you find yourself tempted to push your child into “realizing her potential,” try to remember that her potential is much bigger than any of us can see right now. The person with the clearest view … is her. Stand back and let her look.

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