Kids react to Tiger Woods apology. How can parents talk about it?

Sociologists and other experts weigh in on how parents can address Tiger Woods's fall from grace with their children.

Mary Altaffer/AP
The Jones family of Tuba City, Ariz., watches Tiger Woods give a press conference at the ESPN Zone in New York's Times Square on Friday.

Standing on the putting green here at Balboa Municipal Golf Course, 14-year-old Terry Coulter and 11-year-old Sammy Greene are interrupted by the local Fox affiliate, which has come to gauge responses to Tiger Woods’s 14-minute televised apology.

“I’m pretty bummed about it,” says Terry, tapping in a three-foot putt. “Here was a guy sitting on top of the world because of the control he demonstrated on the golf course. Why couldn’t that control cross over into his personal life? It makes him suspect to me.”

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” says Sammy. “What a guy does outside his sphere of excellence is just not important to me. He can still be my hero and someone I want to be like.”

The comments frame two sides of a debate that has erupted with Woods's 1,511-word apology Friday, read before a small gathering of friends and colleagues, but carried live across the globe.

He said, “I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting; instead, I thought only about myself.”

The world’s most highly paid sports star is also the role model for millions of youths around the world, a topic that is now bubbling to the surface after months of Woods’s silence about his infidelities.

No matter what your personal opinion of his extramarital behavior – or the way he has handled it publicly – the episode is the perfect “teachable moment,” say a host of sociologists, relationship experts, and sports psychologists.

“Role models don’t have to be perfect,” says Jim Fannin, a 35-year author, educator, and platform speaker who has coached several Olympic gold medalists and PGA golfers, among others.

“I really believe that he is still capable of passing on lessons to kids. Being a champion is about getting up one more time from defeat and moving on with focus. That is what he is doing.”

The past decade has seen a blurring of the line between fame and excellence, Mr. Fannin says. “Kids looking up to superstars today see more about the trappings of success than the essence of it,” Fannin says. “They see guys pictured as drinking Gatorade and wearing Nike shoes and then think, ‘When I get to be great, that’s what it will be like.’ This shows there is obviously more to being a champion than that. This is the lesson to be learned here.”

Authors and relationship consultants Esther Latique and Dr. Joni Fraser say the Woods episode has exposed children to a very dangerous message – that the rules that apply to everyone don’t apply to our heroes. “It’s even harder when we have to explain behaviors that we don’t condone and don’t want them to emulate,” they say.

That's why they feel it is good that Woods stated, "I ran straight through the boundaries that married people should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to.... I don't get to play by different rules."

Parents should go on the offensive, says Susan Bartell, author of the new book series, "Top 50 Questions Kids Ask."

She suggests asking open-ended questions like, "What did you hear?" or "What do you think about it?" which can reveal how much the child really understands and how the child is feeling emotionally. Also, making it a conversation rather than a lecture is a more effective way to communicate.

“Helping your child understand the distinction between poor choices and bad people is also key,” she says. “And once you've helped your child make sense of these adult issues, it's important to explain to your kids that their actions don't make them any less of an athlete and they can still appreciate what they did in the sport. Using this incident as a teachable moment will lead children to a better understanding of what's acceptable and what's not. The more parents speak to their kids about these hot-button topics, the more likely they are to have effective communication with them."

Fannin, who has played golf with Woods several times, has studied Buddhism, and knows the Thai culture, says Woods’s biggest hurdle will be overcoming family shame.

“I watched his mother during his apology, and she was sitting with crossed arms, showing her disgust,” he says. “They hugged, but she was still ashamed ... and when you shame a family in Thailand, it’s a very big deal, indeed.”

Many felt that Woods was sincere and went very far in his apology. Others felt he was too scripted and did not go far enough.

Family therapist Carleton Kendrick says the biggest shock has come because of the differences between Woods’s carefully crafted persona and his real self.

“Woods has never, to my knowledge, publicly stated that he is [or] should be a role model for children 'the world over.' His PR and marketing team have carefully orchestrated an 'All-American,' family man, public persona for him designed to appeal to both men and women, families, children and parents," says Mr. Kendrick.

"We make others our role models. Parents tell their children, 'Be like Tiger. Work hard and practice long hours, and you too might become a champion like he is,'" Kendrick says. "Children also choose their role models apart from their parents' suggestions. They usually choose them because they want to have the lives they lead, do what they do, because they like or admire them or simply because they are famous."

Kendrick agrees with Dr. Bartell that parents would serve their children best by first asking them what they think and feel about what they've heard in the media about Woods. They should then address their children's questions and comments in age-appropriate language, homing in on what seems to be troubling their kids most about the story.

“Parents might do well to prepare themselves to answer difficult questions such as: ‘Dad, would you ever do what Tiger did with all those other women?’ or ‘Mom, would you divorce Dad if he did what Tiger Woods did with those other women?’ or 'When his little kids get older and hear or read about what their dad did, how do you think they will feel about their father?' ”


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