Parenting expert Dr. Meg Meeker on the athletic parent and raising athletic kids

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,

You know this by now, but Mommy and I aren’t perfect parents. Sometimes we need help.

I was fortunate to be introduced to Dr. Meg Meeker several years ago. Her wisdom and advice have played a vital role in how we have approached parenting. All children are different. And every situation requires a unique approach, but Dr. Meeker’s advice has helped us avoid some mistakes along the way.

Dr. Meg writes and speaks with the know-how of a pediatrician and the big heart of a mother because she has spent the last 25years practicing pediatric and adolescent medicine while also helping parents and teens to communicate more deeply about difficult topics.

Her books include:

(don’t miss your chance at the end of this post to win one of Dr. Meg’s books – autographed)

I had a chance recently to talk with Dr. Meg about a few subjects that are top of mind in our home right now. I hope you enjoy Dr. Meg’s advice.

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Chad: You’re from a family of endurance athletes. Tell us about that.

Dr. Meg: When I was in my teens, my father introduced me to long distance running. We lived outside of Boston during the Bill Rogers days and not many joined us on the road. I loved running hours at a time on the weekends with my Dad.

Later I married a man who is a marathon-junkie. He runs marathons (26 and 50 milers), canoes, cross country skis and mountain bikes marathons. He is the quintessential cross trainer. As our three daughters grew into their teen years, they began running with their Dad. We allowed them to run shorter distances (3-5 miles) while they were in grade school and their early teens and then when they grew closer to 18, we allowed them to run marathons. It was a struggle (and a bit of marital disagreement, I must admit) because the girls wanted to start running marathons at 16. As pediatricians, we knew that these distances were too much for young girls, but as a proud Dad, my husband wanted to compete alongside them.

Currently, my husband, now 57, runs marathons with our girls- all in their twenties. They love training on trails near our home in northern Michigan when they come home and visit on weekends. Running has become a very sweet time for our girls and their Dad and they tell me that it created wonderful memories.

As a side note, I’d like to add that our youngest child is a boy and he doesn’t run. I was concerned as he was growing up that he would feel left out or that his self esteem might suffer because the girls spent so much time with their Dad running. I think that my husband did a great job fending problems off. Rather than constantly prodding my son to run or bike with him, my husband embraced his differences. That meant rarely talking about his running and instead finding other things to do with our son. He downplayed running and while he was with our son, he fished, down hill skied or he drove him to soccer games.

When one child wants to exercise with you and others don’t, I think that it’s really important to downplay the bond you share with one and focus on supporting the strengths of the child who doesn’t share your enthusiasm. After all, what all kids really want from their fathers is to know that he’s crazy about them no matter what they do.

Chad: What do you see as the biggest challenge for parents who are still pursuing their own athletic goals – particularly endurance athletes who need to invest lots of time in that pursuit?

Dr. Meg: Perhaps the biggest challenge for endurance athletes is the amount of time they need to train. Obviously, this can be a strain on spouses who are left caring for the kids while athletes train. And, if the athlete isn’t careful, he/she can sacrifice too much time away from kids. One of the best ways to avoid too much strain on the family is to train during non-family times like early in the morning, late at night or during the lunch hour. One of the benefits of getting in shape is the increased energy the athlete gets and this can help him get up earlier or go to bed later in order to train.

I think that athletes need to remember that often, the increased time needed to train makes them more efficient. I have found that when I am really busy, I not only get more done, but I organize my time very well and actually spend more time with my kids. For instance, if you get up early on a Saturday morning, train for a few hours, you are more likely to come home ready to really engage the kids more than if you woke up at a regular time, read the paper and drank coffee for an hour or two. Exercise energizes parents and usually puts us in a better mood when we’re done. As a pediatrician I can tell you that kids would much prefer their parents be happier and more energetic and gone a few hours during the day than being home more and be tired and grouchy.

Chad: My son Max is 3 now. He copies my every move. In Boys Should be Boys you said “Every son is his father’s apprentice, studying not his dad’s profession but his way of living, thinking, and behaving.” What are some tips for athletic dads who want to lead their sons by example?

Dr. Meg: Athletic Dads have a wonderful opportunity to turn their boys onto learning to love exercise. Sons will indeed try what they see their fathers do- if they see that exercise makes their Dads happy. Since sons will try to emulate their fathers, they will want to participate alongside you at some point. This can be a wonderful opportunity to bond with your son.

Dads need to be careful about a couple of things, however. If Dad is very intense about his sport and ignores his son while they are exercising together, things can backfire and boys will become turned off to the sport. Fathers who train in extreme sports are intense people by nature and this attribute lends itself to fathers easily ignoring their sons while they are exercising. The other way fathers can get into trouble with sons is if they become competitive with their sons. Boys always want to see how they “size up” to their Dads and this is natural. They want to know if their father feels that they are good, fast, coordinated, etc. So, it’s very important for fathers to praise sons and not become competitive. The focus should be on having fun together and working together as a team who enjoy the same sport.

Chad: I have two daughters as well, 8 and 3. My oldest is already a busy little athlete with swimming, gymnastics, and even a few triathlons to her credit. She’s talented at all of them, but is very laid back and doesn’t thrive on competition. How can parents encourage their kids to excel in sport without falling victim to being “that parent” who pushes their child too hard to win at all cost?

Dr. Meg: Children with high achieving parents (as most Dads who do endurance sports are) feel increased pressure to excel. This doesn’t mean they do excel, they may simply feel the pressure because they are surrounded by it. If a child is laid back and doesn’t want to compete- let her be. Pushing her to be or do something that is against her nature will only backfire. I strongly believe that our job as parents is to gently guide, not push. Kids who are meant to be Olympians will get there because they can’t not compete. A parent can’t hold them back. So often we parents fear that our kids will miss opportunities if we fail to push them but this isn’t true. Great athletes will get where they are supposed to be as long as we stay diligent and give them careful guidance.

Over my 27 years practicing pediatrics, I have cared for numerous athletes. I have taken care of athletes who train with Olympians and who compete in Division 1 sports in college. I can tell you that all of the patients who succeed are kids who have had parents stand behind them but never push. When parents push too hard, it comes back to bite them. Many kids burn out usually around 10th grade if their parents push too hard or they start competing at too young an age.

Chad: In your work as a pediatrician what have you learned about kids who are involved in athletics versus kids who aren’t and how important is it for parents to model an active lifestyle for their kids?

Dr. Meg: Athletics can be a wonderful way for kids to stay healthy, make good friends, learn to cooperate as a team member, improve their self esteem and enjoy many meaningful times with their parents. Studies have shown that kids who stay occupied with healthy activities like athletics are more likely to stay away from all the bad stuff- sex, drugs, and alcohol. The added benefit of having a child enjoy the same sport as a parent is that it can be a wonderful way to bond with the child. Finally, there are many great lessons that kids can learn from sports. They learn to work hard, be self disciplined, and persevere and- this sounds crazy, but learn how to fail. No child is going to excel at all sports and learning how to compete and lose is more important than how to win. This is because kids need to know that a.), their parents still love them and think they’re wonderful and b.) learn that life involves winning and losing. As a parent, teaching a child how to lose and then move forward is extremely important.

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I hope you enjoyed Dr. Meg’s advice. Parenting is the most important job in the world, and one we can’t afford to get wrong.

You can follow Dr. Meg’s blog here. You can also keep up with her on twitter.

I love you,

– Daddy

GIVEAWAY: Leave a question or a comment for Dr. Meg for your chance to win one of 5 FREE autographed books! Choose any of Meg’s 3 titles. I’ll select the winners randomly and notify you in the comments section of this post….so stayed tuned in! Winners announced on Friday.