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Our Love And Hate For Olympic Parents

These parents cheering and grimacing on our flat screens? They are who we hope to be -- an Olympic medal trumps even an Ivy league admission in the parenting sweepstakes -- and they are who we fear becoming -- after all, you can't be a normal family with this kind of hyperfocus on one child.
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And the Parenting Olympics continues.

The latest medalist is Judy Murray, mother of Andy, who claimed gold yesterday with his victory over Roger Federer. His vault into the stands to embrace her adds one more image to the album of athlete's parents in the London spotlight: Lynn and Rick Raisman writhing and squirming while Aly spun on the uneven bars; Damaris Orozco covering her eyes while John stuck his landings; Natalie Hawkins marveling "I've raised an", after Gabby Douglas won gold in the individual all around; Debbie Phelps crying as Team USA brought Michael the final gold of his career; even Princess Anne beaming like a proud Mum as she presented the silver medal in equestrian jumping to daughter Zara Phillips.

This is hardly the first time we viewers have paid attention to the parents, of course. Those weep-inducing Procter & Gamble ads saying "Thank You, Mom."? You might remember they ran during the 2008 Olympics, too. That same year we also followed Debbie Phelps pretty closely, especially when Michael, dazed after winning his eighth medal at those games, said "I just want to see my mom."

Still, our focus is amped this year -- If nothing else, this is certainly the first Olympics that comes with a "Parent Cam." Which leaves me wondering "why?" Athletes have always had families. So why have broadcasters noticed with such gusto now?

One difference from even a few years ago is how technology now insures that results are known long before network viewers tune in each evening. That makes the reactions of the athletes and their families one of the few surprises NBC can offer us. As Rebecca Dana noted in The Daily Beast, focussing on parents:

solves several problems for the network. It helps jack up the level of suspense during pretaped events, the outcome of which most viewers learned hours earlier on Twitter. It also reduces the amount of time Olympians (and the rest of us) must spend enduring substance-free "interviews" with members of the NBC News team. Who cares what Michael Phelps has to say about his performance in the 400-meter relay when his mother, Debbie is there, weeping and praying and putting on an altogether better show?

But there is another change from years past, one that makes us want to see these parents almost as much as NBC wants to show them to us. The fact is ALL parents are being watched more closely in 2012 , not just those who raised world class athletes. Parenting MATTERS, we tell ourselves, and the thought leaves us both empowered and terrified. What we do determines what they can do. If we fail, we fail them. So we spend far more time than our own parents comparing ourselves to each other, questioning our choices, buying books that tell us what we are doing wrong.

And these parents cheering and grimacing on our flat screens? They are, on the one hand, who we hope to be -- an Olympic medal trumps even an Ivy league admission in the parenting sweepstakes, no? And, at the same time, they are who we fear becoming -- after all, you can't be a normal family with this kind of hyperfocus on one child, right? It's not either/or, of course. Our feelings probably fall somewhere in the middle, in some combination of the above, depending on the specifics of their lives and ours. But wherever we stand, we see them and think of ourselves. Are we those kinds of parents? Can we be? Should we?

Pick a parenting struggle and there is a lesson to be found in the life of some Olympic athlete. Worried that you are pushing your child too hard? Take heart from Natalie Hawkins, who said no when Gabby wanted to move back from her training facility in Iowa because she was homesick. Worried you aren't pushing them enough? Remember that Usain Bolt, the "world's fastest man" eats fast food and proudly parties harder than he trains.

Wondering when it is okay to let your child quit a sport? Debbie Phelps remembers when Michael wanted to stop swimming in high school and take up golf, like many of his friends. She let him decide on the theory that ""Children have to do what they enjoy. You have to let your kids find what's best for them and what their own niche is." Thinking perhaps you are a little too involved in your child's life? Consider this recent headline in the Daily Mail: "Andy Murray needs to ditch his mum if he's to win Grand Slam."

True, he lost Wimbledon. But he won gold the next time around -- with his Mum on the "Parent Cam" and the whole world watching them both.