One good thing about the Olympic Games is that they may inspire your children to get up off the couch -- and onto the soccer field or track, or into the gym or pool.

As the mother of three kids who all swam competitively through high school and one who continued to swim in college, I'm glad that the young people who participate in this grueling sport get national recognition every four years.

But if your kids are just starting out, don't overcommit your time or your money until you can gauge whether their interest will survive more than a week or two. Especially if your child's request involves expensive gym or pool time, start small, with a local summer swimming program (that's what Missy Franklin did) or a weekly class during the school year. If your child is serious enough to bump up the commitment, have her focus on one sport per season. She may have to give up other activities to avoid overloading her schedule --and yours.

If a sport requires a lot of equipment -- think ice hockey -- start with used stuff and trade up if your kid's interest outlasts a season or two. When my son finished one hockey season and decided not to continue, we passed on his used sticks, pads and pants to a young cousin.

I wouldn't have dreamed of paying my kids for practicing or lowering their times, and they wouldn't have dreamed of asking. But if you want to reward kids for their effort, try this: For every 15 minutes of practice, say, your athlete might earn 100 "sports cents." Once he has accumulated enough cents, he can exchange them for cash to buy a new tennis racket, soccer bag, baseball glove or some other piece of equipment.

Parents, don't be too dazzled by the prospect of Olympic gold or a full-ride college scholarship. Only a tiny percentage of students receives athletic scholarships. The average amount is less than $10,000, which might not even cover tuition for one year.

Like those talented young gymnasts walking the beam, your challenge is to encourage your kids to strive for the best while keeping their balance.

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