AUSTIN, TEXAS — Some of them turn out fine. From Chris Evert, once a chubby 16-year-old with a lightning-bolt backhand, to Tara Lipinski, the elfin phenom of Olympic ice, many young athletes are great kids as well as great competitors. Others are undone by money, adulation, and pressure. Figure skater Oksana Baiul won gold at 16, and was arrested for drunk driving at 19. Tennis star Jennifer Capriati turned pro at 13 - and was caught shoplifting and with drugs six years later.
Thus the recently concluded struggle of gymnastics champion Dominique Moceanu for financial independence raises sensitive questions about parenting and responsibility in an age of gifted kids and young super-athletes. For parents, where's the line between authority and exploitation? For kids, does the ability to handle a base-line smash translate to ability to handle daily life?
Such questions are hard to answer in an era that glorifies winning at games and parses the president's sex life on TV. "There isn't a lot of childhood left in American culture," says Bernie Beck, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "There's almost nothing that we're inclined to prevent a child from doing if they're able to do it."
Dominique, for her part, will get a chance to try life on her own. A Texas state court declared her a legal adult Wednesday after her parents agreed to drop their resistance to the action. The move brought closure to a wrenching family fight that began when 17-year-old Dominique filed a lawsuit against them. She charged that father, Dumitru, and mother, Camelia, had squandered her earnings and hijacked her childhood for their own ends.
The facts of the story remain in dispute. Her parents say Dominque was not exactly living a Hyundai-style life - she'd traded in her Mercedes for a Mustang convertible and had a bedroom the size of a gym. They blame her coach and friends for turning their daughter against them.
Dominique, in turn, said her father mismanaged the trust fund that contains her earnings and pressured her by many means, including physical blows.
One thing both agreed on: Dominique was following a career her parents had charted since her birth. Expatriate Romanian gymnasts themselves, they had hung her by her hands from a clothesline at age six months. Ten years later they quit their jobs and followed her to Houston, where she studied at the gymnastic atelier of legendary coach Bela Karolyi.
Following her court victory, Dominique - winner of gold at Atlanta - said the ordeal was the hardest thing she had ever done.
Dominique is far from the only athletic phenom to take legal action against her parents. Gymnast Mary Lou Retten filed a similar suit following her 1984 Olympic victories, although hers was a technical move and had her mom and dad's support. More seriously, tennis player Mary Pierce sought court protection from an allegedly abusive father/coach when she was still a teenager.
The Stage Door Parent syndrome, in which mothers or fathers push a talented child to fulfill their own fantasies of stardom, is a common stereotype. It occurs in all kinds of disciplines, from a science prodigy to a young Mozart-in-the-making.
In the case of superstar children "parents have to be very careful not to confuse their kid's career with their own," says Peter Rubenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington.
Otherwise the relationship can degenerate into exploitation. The parent gets a glow of success, and perhaps money. The child gets pressure and anxiety. "A [talented child] should never be put in the position where they are being shown off or exploited," says Charles Castleman, a professor at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, who works with gifted musicians. "Every performance they give should be something he or she gains from, whether it be a financial return or an important step for their career."
But it is wrong to assume that any successful child athletes or performers got there only because they were pushed too hard by a parent. Experts say the children are often the ones who push for more - more coaches, more travel, more competition.
Once that happens, the successful phenoms begin to be defined by their talents, not their personality. Even their parents sometimes forget their age. "The most common mistake parents make with a gifted young person is abdication of that parental role, and being too permissive," says Celeste Rhodes, executive director of a program for exceptional children at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. "The healthy families know how to balance responsiveness with demandingness."
Today's society, so fixated on winning and celebrity, tends to judge a phenom's worth solely on the basis of whatever he or she is precocious at. Today's children have reacted to this in part by looking for something to be good at, earlier and earlier in life.
"Kids are becoming much more concerned about focusing on a career earlier," says Deena Weinstein, a sociologist at Depaul University in Chicago.
TV exposes children to adult subjects much earlier these days. But that doesn't make them older. "If anything, they're more naive than ever," says Ms. Weinstein. "They don't know about other cultures, they don't know history. If it's not on TV, it doesn't exist."