Menus Subscribe Search
ryan-braun

(PHOTO: STEVE PALUCH/FLICKR)

Your Kids Don’t Care That Their Favorite Athlete Did Steroids

• August 02, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: STEVE PALUCH/FLICKR)

Brandon Sneed spoke to a Yale professor about what happens to kids who find out that their heroes lied to them, and how their parents should handle it.

We’ve all seen it: Some Small Kid absolutely adores Some Athlete. Worships Some Athlete. Wears Some Athlete’s jersey while he reads about Some Athlete while watching Some Athlete on television. And then Some Small Kid finds out that Some Athlete is in trouble for cheating and lying and is thus revealed to not be the superhero Some Small Kid thought he was—thus Some Small Kid is super confused and wounded and crying. And, we are certain, forever scarred by Some Athlete.

A least, that’s always a part of the discussion that surrounds things like what happened last week, with the suspension of Ryan Braun, the star baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who vehemently denied allegations of PED use and then got totally busted for said PED use. How very Lance Armstrong of him. (It looks like Alex Rodriguez is next, but let’s be real, even the smallest kids know better by now.)

On top of how will it affect Braun and how will it affect the game and how does it affect us, there’s always: How does this affect the kids?

A million columns and essays get published that go on and on about how these athletes are failing their fans and how these are important teaching moments for our nation’s youth—that we grown-ups should use such travesties to shine the light upon the negative consequences of cheating and lying and all-around malfeasance. It’s all so much oversimplified outrage and soapbox moralizing, all in the name of, “What about the kids?”

But really—what about the kids? Does seeing a National League MVP lie about using steroids and then admit to using steroids actually have any effect on children? Or does it ultimately not really mean a thing?

As it turns out, when Some Small Kid’s hero falls, Some Small Kid suffers far less from that than from Some Adults’ reactions to it.

That, and so much more, is what I learned from Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale and director of the Yale Parenting Center. He made me very glad that I don’t yet have small children of my own, because I surely would have traumatized them.

“Children just have no reaction to the falling of heroes. Just disappointment, but that’s the extent of the impact.”

Here are the more interesting parts of our conversation, edited slightly for clarity.

I wanted to find out what the impact of kids realizing their heroes have totally lied to them has on those kids—developmentally, behaviorally, in any way you’ve seen in your professional experience. What can you tell me?
It’s perhaps disappointing to realize, but a child won’t have endless nightmares over this. A six-year-old in 10 years will hardly remember who A-Rod is. Some psychologists pontificate on beliefs and what have you—I’m grounding the things I’m telling you in what the research shows. And that is, children just have no reaction to the falling of heroes. Just disappointment, but that’s the extent of the impact. Because a minute later they replace the fallen hero with a new hero, and it’s all over. Like, “Who was A-Rod, again?” That’s how we work as people.

So these things—they don’t have some sort of long-lasting, scarring effect on kids who idolize these people?
It’s dramatic in the news, but even then, if you look at this journalistic behavior, you’ll be off this story and off to something new pretty soon. It’s exactly the same for a child. These fallen role models—they’re disappointing, but they’re really not cultural models. It’s all over the place. Look at Aaron Hernandez [the former New England Patriots NFL player suspected for murder]. If he’s guilty, it’s a travesty—but a kid isn’t going to remember that. It’s not going to have some long-lasting psychological scarring effect on them. It’s not enduring for children.”

So does it work when parents use this as a chance to sit a kid down and teach him something important about life?
No. These are not teachable moments.

But I’ve read in other articles that that’s exactly what we—as grown-ups and parents—should do with kids in situations like this.
It’s simply not true. The impact from any of these types of events is, sure, disappointing, but it’s not something that changes the trajectory of child development. A child’s development doesn’t work by teachable moments. It’s much the same way that the skill of being, say, a writer, is not found in a teachable moment. Learning the piano doesn’t come from a teachable moment. And pointing out right and wrong and thinking it’ll have some special impact is not a teachable moment.

So as an adult, it doesn’t really help the kid if I get all outraged about something like this—am I understanding you there?
These one-shot things just don’t make much of a difference. That child has probably seen that outrage a thousand times anyway. Oh, the income tax, the neighbor never turns off their music—parents often don’t realize the potency they have as role models. It’s so much more than any athlete or celebrity. They change the brain of the child. Parents and adults should act how they want children to act. It’s like sex in the following way: If your child raises this, you answer it in kind. You don’t sit your child down and have some in-depth, intense talk about it. You can actually, by doing that, cause trauma to children. So you answer them nicely, and you move on. Don’t sit them down and try to teach them a lesson.

What do you mean, you can cause trauma?
This is a separate sort of issue, this example I’m about to give you, but it’s a bit interesting in passing: When 9/11 happened, a lot of children watched TV. And many had no connection at all to 9/11. They didn’t have parents hurt in the attacks, they didn’t live in the city. But they still experienced terrors, secondary terrors, and they developed a traumatic reaction. From exposure to the events on TV, they developed post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

You have to be gentle. Some say, “Well, I believe in tough love.” That’s a move in the wrong direction.

If someone’s drowning, you don’t try to give them a swimming lesson. You just get them back to shore and teach them how to swim later.

Would it be best, then, to simply ignore the event and kids’ questions about it—sort of a “because I said so” situation?
Absolutely not. One of the worst things parents do is tell a child, “Because I said so,” and give no reason. Again, you don’t want to traumatize them with some enraged lecture. But answer the questions a child wants answered. Even if you say, “I can tell you much more when you’re older.” That’s better than stonewalling.

OK, now that everything I thought we should do is obviously horribly wrong, help me. What should we do?
There’s nothing you can necessarily do, other than gently answer their questions, in these moments. What your kids really learn from—it’s in everyday enduring features. The character of a child, honesty and lying and the like—the real impact on those traits comes from what the parents do and how they act in everyday life. How they instill their values in their child. What are you like as a parent? As an adult? What are the values you want to teach them? Live according to them, and those will overwhelm and override all this other stuff.

Brandon Sneed
Brandon Sneed is a writer based in eastern North Carolina and the author of The Edge of Legend. He's had other stories published by ESPN The Magazine, GQ, Outside, and more. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and does Twitter as @brandonsneed.

More From Brandon Sneed

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.