The Michael Phelps Scandal: What should you tell your kids?


Michael’s Mistake: Eight Ways to Turn the Michael Phelps Pot Scandal into a Valuable Teaching Moment for Your Kids

He was a national hero that parents and kids both loved. Now, with a compromising photo making headline news, parents are wondering what they should say to their kids about Michael Phelps’s fall from grace. Editor Kelly Johnson urges parents not to let this great opportunity to talk with their kids pass them by. She says there are many lessons we can all learn from Michael’s big mistake.

Throughout the Olympics we heard some pretty amazing facts: His wing span is longer than his height! His feet are like flippers! He eats over 10,000 calories a day! He has two times the lung capacity of a normal human! These exclamations, some more true than others, were all used to help explain the superhuman feat of Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in one Olympics, an accomplishment that made him a hero to many, especially kids. But as the result of one unfortunate photo, the superhuman Olympian is now having to face his very human actions.

Kelly Johnson, mother of six and editor of the upcoming book A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young Men on Love, Power, Pride and What It Really Means to Be a Man (Brandylane Publishing, Spring 2009, ISBN: 978-1-883911-84-3, $24.95), reminds us that while disgruntled parents with Phelps-loving kids might want to throw him under the proverbial bus, going after him won’t help your kids to process what is happening to their American hero. Instead, she urges that you take this opportunity to teach them some valuable lessons about their own integrity.

“Particularly recently it has become especially hard to protect our kids from the misbehaving celebrities out there,” says Johnson. “With a famous baseball player admitting to steroid use, a famous singer being accused of domestic violence, and of course Phelps, parents have had a lot to explain to their children recently. For me, Michael Phelps’s behavior hits a little closer to home than that of many other celebrities because I think he became a national hero for the country. Someone, for once, that we were happy to let our kids idolize.”

As we hear the news coverage and consider what we would do if we were in Michael’s mom’s shoes, Johnson says it’s a prime opportunity to talk to your kids about what happened and what we all–kids and parents alike–can learn from Michael’s mistake.

“Let’s be honest,” says Johnson. “This could have happened to any of our sons. And while my first reaction would be to bring the hammer down hard, once the dust had settled, I would want my own son to know that there was a way to set things right. We have to remember that role model or not, Michael Phelps is entitled to the same compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement we would want extended to our own kids. And I think for many parents it will be easier for us to forgive Michael if we can use him to teach our kids some valuable lessons about life.”

Read on for eight ways to maximize this teaching moment instead of letting the opportunity pass you by:

Talk about the Phelps story because your kids can relate to it. When the nightly news is made up mostly of stories dealing with the financial crisis, the hardships it is causing, and wars overseas, a story about an Olympic swimmer smoking pot may seem insignificant. But, warns Johnson, the Phelps story is one that your children will more easily relate to as they will experience pressures to drink or use drugs in their own lives. Failing to talk with them about the decision Michael Phelps made and the ramifications it can have is a huge missed opportunity.

“As parents, we didn’t mind that our kids looked up to Phelps,” says Johnson. “But now it’s time for us to sit down with our kids and tell them what we don’t like about the situation and to listen to them give their opinions. It’s also important that you use this opportunity to explain to them that Phelps is redeemable. That, sure, he made a mistake, but we all do and now he must do what he can to make it right.”

Remind your kids they must separate the Michael in the pool from the Michael on dry land. American consumers are nothing if not optimists, and no matter how many athletes and “heroes” have disappointed us in the past, we continue to hope that the next one will live up to our expectations. Enter Michael Phelps. We wanted to believe that the skill and maturity we saw in the pool was reflected in the young man himself. The truth is Michael Phelps is a uniquely talented swimmer, but his superhuman qualities are limited to the pool. On dry land, he’s no better or worse than most kids his age, and we can’t really be angry with him for that.

“The trick in a situation like this one is to help your kids to find the qualities in Phelps, or any favorite athlete, that they should emulate,” advises Johnson. “Talk about his drive and dedication, or the fact that he was never a quitter. Tell them it’s okay for them to look up to famous athletes, so long as they don’t try to be exactly like them. Identify the best qualities about that person and explain to them that is who they should try to be.”

Explain that when commitments are made, things change. As a result of his superstar status, Michael is paid millions of dollars as the spokesperson for big brands like Speedo, Kellogg’s, and Subway. He is also a favorite speaker at elementary schools and naturally is the most recognized face of the U.S. Swim Team. “There is nothing wrong with that,” says Johnson. “He has achieved extraordinary levels of success in his sport and he is entitled to reap the benefits that come from those accomplishments. The problem lies with the responsibility he had to maintain his good image and make good choices, because the brands he represents market to adults AND children. When you endorse products that are popular with kids, no matter what your image clause says, you have to remember that you are presenting yourself as a role model to kids–someone they look up to and someone whose actions they imitate.

Phelps should have thought about that.

“A great way to explain this concept to your kids is to tell them that it’s no different from running for student council at school, or joining the Girl Scouts,” adds Johnson. “When they become a part of a bigger organization, they immediately become a representative for that organization, and it’s their responsibility to represent the organization well. When you take on a title, or wear a uniform, you’re making a promise to that organization that you will represent it in a positive way. Through his recent actions, Phelps broke his promise to the brands he represents, the children he’s spoken to, and the U.S. Swim Team. His actions are a great way to reiterate to your children what it means to be trusted and what it means to have integrity.”

Teach them how their decisions affect other people. When we make mistakes, it can be easy to forget that we aren’t the only ones affected by the ensuing fallout. In Phelps’s case his decision had far-reaching ramifications. Everyone from his fans, the companies that sponsored him, his teammates and coaches to his own mother was forced to endure the negative effects of the scandal. Talk to your kids about thinking before they act, and remind them that their actions can affect people outside of their inner circle.

“Sit down with your kids and have them make a list of all the people in their lives: friends, family, teachers, and coaches and explain to them how their bad decisions can negatively affect the people on their list. Explain to your daughter that if she gets in trouble at school, her bad choices affect more than just her. Explain that you as her parents would be disappointed, and her teacher’s good opinion of her would be tarnished. And if she’s grounded she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her commitments to her soccer teammates and coaches. When they start to think about the broad affects their choices can have, they will be more likely to stop and think more carefully about their own actions.”

Explain that they may not be famous, but people are watching them, too. As with most celebrities today, Michael Phelps has been followed by cameras and reporters on a regular basis since his enormous success last summer. As it turned out, it wasn’t a paparazzo’s camera that caught him in a compromising situation–it was a camera phone, presumably belonging to a peer who was attending the same party. While your son may not be facing paparazzi on his way to class, or have to deal with media scrutiny over what he had for lunch, it’s important to make the case that people are watching his actions, and that they can make a bigger statement about who he is than anything he will ever say publicly.

“Kids watch one another closely, and they notice the things that happen when no one else is watching,” explains Johnson. “Explain to your son that the decisions he makes each day, and the way that he carries himself at school, on the soccer field, and even at home impacts those around him. Teach him to strive for setting a good example at all times. Even if no one notices 99 percent of the time, it will set him up for success when someone does take notice.”

Teach your kids that it’s NOT all relative. Celebrity news is more popular than ever, and you can hardly turn on the television or check out at the grocery store without being bombarded by the latest celebrity scandal. It’s unfortunate, but after seeing repeated trips to rehab, allegations of steroid use and domestic violence, and other incidents of open drug use, your kids may be desensitized to news like this and may even think it’s not a big deal. When you talk to them, make sure that they understand that what Michael Phelps did was wrong; no matter how much more press the A-Rod steroid scandal may be receiving.

“Just because smoking pot isn’t the worst celebrity offense out there doesn’t make it any less serious,” explains Johnson. “In fact, it’s sad that the bar is so low that you can quickly find worse offenses from celebrities. Now is the time to explain to your kids that wrong is wrong: If your son gets caught cheating on a test, it doesn’t mean he is in any less trouble just because Tommy was caught fighting at school. Teach them that the only offenses that matter are their own, and that they should be their own litmus test for what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Remind them that admitting mistakes and apologizing speaks volumes. With sponsorship deals, future training, and of course, his reputation all on the line, it can be a big temptation for someone like Michael Phelps to want to deny the story, explain it away, or to try and fly under the radar and not comment. Instead, he admitted to making a bad decision on national television and he apologized. While it may not change what happened, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a demonstration of humility on Phelps’s behalf, one that speaks more to his character than a compromising cell phone photo ever will.

“It’s important to make sure that your kids understand that an apology isn’t an instant fix, but it is a necessary first step towards making things right,” says Johnson. “If you avoid or deny the things you have done wrong, it can do further damage to your overall character. Admitting your mistakes and apologizing to the people you’ve affected is the first step in restoring the faith and trust they once had in you. And you should also remind your kids that simply apologizing does not erase their transgressions. Tell them they must live their apology every day by not repeating their past mistakes.”

Remind them that everyone deserves a second chance. Yes, Michael Phelps made a bad decision, and, yes, he should have known better. That doesn’t change the fact that, superstar swimmer or not, he’s still human. That means he is bound to make mistakes from time to time, and he deserves the chance to rise above. Explain to your children that just because Phelps made a mistake, it doesn’t mean that we automatically write him off. Just as they should forgive a friend who has apologized for a mistake, we must allow Phelps the opportunity to admit his mistake, to apologize, and to prove that he should not be defined by this one event. And even more importantly, when it’s their turn to make the mistakes, they will want others to forgive them as well.

“A huge part of the outcome of a crisis is determined not in the crisis itself, but in how you handle it,” says Johnson. “And this is a great opportunity to teach your kids that they shouldn’t race to judgment when the people in their lives make mistakes, redemption is always available to those who seek it, and everyone deserves a second chance.”

“If there is one truly good thing that comes from all this, it may be the number of parents who will be sitting down with their children in the coming weeks to talk about drugs, role models, money, and fame,” says Johnson. “Those are tricky conversations to have and, however unintentional, Michael Phelps has provided parents with an opening. At the end of the day, I’m confident that these conversations will stick with our kids longer than any fallout from Michael Phelps’s infamous marijuana media scandal.”

About the Editor:

Kelly H. Johnson is an attorney, writer, and the mother/stepmother of five sons and one daughter. She holds a BBA from the University of Notre Dame and a law degree from the College of William and Mary, Marshall-Wythe School of Law. She served as law clerk to the Honorable Harry L. Carrico, then Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, prior to entering private practice with the law firm Williams, Mullen, Clark and Dobbins. She remained there, in the firm’s litigation department, until becoming a full-time mother.

An occasional lead singer in a local rock band, Ms. Johnson has written for both local and national parenting magazines including Richmond Woman on-line, Memphis Parent Magazine, Charlotte Parent, V Magazine for Women, Fifty Plus, and Family Fun. She is a frequent contributor to the widely distributed Richmond Parents Monthly, and her work appears in the compilations The Imperfect Mom–Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World (Doubleday), It’s a Girl–Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press), and in the forthcoming Love Wins (SmileyBooks).

Ms. Johnson lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, Fred, and their children, who outnumber them three to one.

For more information, please visit

About the Book:

A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young Men on Love, Power, Pride and What It Really Means to Be a Man (Brandylane Publishing, Spring 2009, ISBN: 978-1-883911-84-3) will be available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, or direct from the publisher by calling 804-644-3090.