Experts Say Olympic Swimmer’s Mother Should Be Credited for His Positive Outlook

Olympian Michael Phelps isn’t just a living legend in swimming; he’s also a product of single mother, who raised him and his sisters alone after her husband left her when they were youngsters. The Maryland native could have let the myths of a broken home get the better of him, but America’s top gold medal winner at the Olympics appears to have used the experience as an opportunity, a major credit to his mother’s parenting skills.

Texas Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., and author of a number of books on parenting, isn’t surprised, however. “In the process of having to do twice as much as an actively partnered parent, many a single parent becomes doubly dedicated to their children’s growth, exerting an extremely powerful motivating influence in their lives. Some of the very best run families I have seen have had a single parent at the helm,” he says.

“An intact family does not always guarantee a successful and happy child. The quantity of parents is less important than the quality of parenting,” says Dr. Mark Goulston, M.D., a business consultant, trainer, clinical psychiatrist and author of Get Out of Your Own Way.

Moments after Phelps won his first gold in the 400-meter individual medley, he looked into the stands to see his mother, Debbie, and sisters, cheering his victory. His father told The Baltimore Sun that he was watching the games on TV from his home in Linthicum, Maryland. Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman told that Phelps’ father attended the games in 2000 and 2004, but sat separately from his former wife and their children. Bowman told ESPN the swimmer’s relationship with his father is “just distant. I don’t think it’s good or bad. There’s not much there.”

Before the trip to China, Debbie Phelps told a Maryland TV station that “wvery parent who is sitting in the stands wants their child to do their best.” But for the single mom, it was a tougher road than most. Debbie and Fred Phelps separated in 1993, and after a year, their divorce was finalized when Michael was 9. Debbie Phelps spent the next few years studying to become a middle school principal at the same time as she was dealing with doctor’s appointments to counter his diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Symptoms of the ADHD include constant activity, inability to focus attention and impulsive behavior. The condition is treated with therapy and medication. Since the two sisters Phelps adored, Whitney and Hilary, were swimmers, he was encouraged to become a swimmer as well as a way to help him overcome his condition.

“Michael Phelps’ mom should win a Mother of the Year award,” says therapist Dr. Gilda Carle, author of Don’t Bet on the Prince! How to Have the Man You Want by Betting on Yourself. “She single-handedly raised three kids, and since Michael had learning disabilities, she gave him one thing on which he could focus and call his own — his swimming. The Phelps experience shows how survival is all about rising above anger and hostility toward an ex and getting on with your life. The best revenge is doing well!”

“This certainly disproves the myth about kids having trouble when coming from broken homes,” Carle says. “It’s all in the parenting and direction we give our children — whatever their immediate surroundings. Each individual should have a skill s/he can nurture and develop. I think this is one of the most inspiring American stories we have! And this mom did this by not betting on a prince for help. She took on grad school, ran a school, and nurtured her family —” and played up their uniqueness. She can be very proud.”


Have you found yourself as a single co-parent, or without the full support of your spouse in raising your children? Dr. Goulston offers these tips for parenting, single or otherwise, to help your children be successful at the Olympic games of life.

1. Help them identify and achieve goals.

Help your child discover and develop their goals for themselves versus your goals for them, and then help them figure out the steps on how to reach those goals. Happiness is not a goal in life, it is the result of a well-lived life that sets up and achieves goals that are satisfying and meaningful to the child. Be mindful of living through your child” and don’t do it.A child is not on this earth to get you the second scoop of ice cream that you never got.

2. Find mentors to help.

When you can find mentors/coaches in the world who care about your children, shower those authority figures with appreciation and offer what I call a “Power Thank You” to them. That has 3 parts: Thank them for what they are specifically doing for your child; acknowledge the effort and commitment it takes for them to do it; and express what it personally means to your and child and you.

3. Teach them your core values.

Conflict is unavoidable in all families, but the way you manage, deal and learn from the conflict depends on the parent’s or parents’ core values.Core values are not what you say, think or believe, they are what you do in your day to day behavior that you resist changing. If your words match your actions, children will trust and respect you; if they don’t, they won’t.