Monday, August 03, 2015

The Importance of Letting Your Child Lose

I am just as much of a helicopter parent as can be expected from someone that has lost a child. I always want to protect my kids from getting hurt, or failing, or being disappointed. And despite having those feelings, I KNOW that is not what is best for my kids.

None of my kids are super athletes. Their talents lie more in academics, art, creativity, ingenuity, and less-physical activities. But school is full of physical activities. Here in the States, Physical Education is a required class for every child. I appreciate the importance of these classes and encourage and expect my children to both participate in these activities and to do their best. To me it's no different than any other class they take.

But there is an activity that happens every spring that I absolutely dread. It's the multi-school track meet. Schools from all over the city come to the local high school to participate in a series of activities that include races, a softball throw, and the standing long jump. It's a BIG deal for the schools, and it's a well-supported activity each year with hundreds of kids and parents in attendance.

And so every year when mid-May comes around, I start to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because it means my son has to participate in a race of some sort.

When James first started participating in the track meet, he wasn't really into it. He didn't seem to care much about winning, or racing, or participating. He just liked being out of school, hanging out with his friends for a day, and being outside. He didn't really have a love for running despite loving many other outdoor activities. (Again, we're not a super athletic family.) He would simply show up and complete the activities and that was it. No big deal.

But as he grew, he began to realize the importance other people placed on how well you did. Suddenly it mattered who won, who didn't, and who came in dead last. He started to notice the comments other kids (and parents) made about success and failure. And suddenly the track meet took on a whole new meaning for him.

He began to dread it as much as I. He started to realize where he fit in the pack of athletes, and it certainly wasn't at the top of the tier. While many of the teachers encourage the kids to run and even go so far as to take them out daily for a run around the school yard, it was evident that James wasn't going to be the fastest kid on the playground.

The last two years the track meet turned into something he hated. Frankly I hated it too. No one wants to sit in the stands and watch any child struggle to complete an activity. It's such a public way for a child to succeed, which is wonderful; or to fail, which is humiliating. And while the crowd lovingly cheered on every child, James began to realize how public a loss could be.

The last few years of his Elementary School track meets he began to ask me if he could skip school that day. This was a hard call for me. I don't believe in skipping school. I believe the kids need to be in the classroom learning the lessons prepared by the teachers. The only time I allow my kids to miss is for an illness, or a family vacation (and we don't take many of these). What was I to do?

On the one hand, I felt he should be there participating in the activity prepared by his school. But on the other hand, I certainly didn't want to watch him struggle or fail.

So we had a pretty frank discussion about commitments and his feelings about his ability to run. Ultimately I encouraged him to go, but I let him make his own decision. I'm proud to say that he chose to run every single year.

So every year I packed up a water bottle, lathered myself in sunscreen, and dragged myself to his track meet.

And every year I watched him come in almost last and sometimes even dead last.

But you know what? I couldn't be more proud of him. He chose to participate knowing full well that with his breathing issues and his skill level he wasn't going to win. In fact he participated knowing very well that he just might lose. And yet he showed up. He fulfilled his commitment. He put in the effort.

What did he learn? He learned that someone has to come in last sometimes. He learned that true friends accept you for who you are and what you bring to the table. He learned that he isn't the only one who struggles. He learned that some winners are generous and others are not. He learned how to work harder for the next time. And he learned that he still has value despite not being the best at something.

What did I learn? I learned that my little son was example of incredible strength. I learned that I need to work on helping him reach his goals. I learned that I need to be less afraid of failing and try things that are hard even if there is a guarantee of failure. And I learned to step back and trust my child and his decisions.

What would we have missed if we had foregone the entire track meet? So many things. And while it is my very nature to protect him from any kind of hurt, loss, or failure, I would much rather that he learns those lessons while he is under my care than experience them for the first time when I'm not there to comfort him.

Letting your child lose or fail is going to be one of the most difficult things you ever do. But there are many lessons in failing and losing that you cannot teach otherwise.

Here's to my little man who succeeded every time he failed. You amaze me, son!




11 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story!! And you are so right about having kids lose or fail is such an important lesson.

    With the way sports, and even school to some extent, are "when everyone" gets a trophy is not realistic when you get out into the world. You will not always be as good as someone else but if you are as good as YOU CAN BE, that is what counts. Sometimes showing up, running the race and being last is your best, and that is okay. It shows character and commitment.

    Your son sounds amazing and you are an amazing parent!

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    1. Nora, I like that "being as good as you can be." What a great attitude to teach your children.

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  2. Heer, here, indeed! What a wonderful and wise young man.
    Anne-Liesse

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    1. Thanks, Anne-Liesse! I'm pretty proud of the young man he's turning out to be.

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  3. You have the correct attitude Jen! And your son learned a valuable lesson about fortitude and always striving for something better. My son Brian was always so much smaller and not as athletic as his buddies growing up. He used to get so upset about it and actually had begged me to take him to see a doctor about it. I told him to let nature handle it and now at 34 years old he's 6'2" and weighs 215 lbs of pure muscle. He's an Army Ranger aviator and has been in the military now for almost 11 years. He far exceeds most of his old high school buddies athletic and muscular prowess and is the best shape of his life. And he's still the same smart kid he always was. Just goes to show you what you can do when you put your mind to it!

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    1. I'm totally going to share this with my son, Celeste. He's in the same boat being one of the smallest of his friends. This is going to give him hope and make him smile. :)

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  4. Love this! Wise words for all of us.

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    1. Thanks for reading this and for leaving a comment, Nita. :)

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  5. This is so true!!!!!!!!!! If we never struggle through anything, we never find our strength. I just love this blog post!!!!!

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    1. Thanks, Tracie! If you only knew how much I admire you!

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  6. Anonymous4:19 PM

    I've always told my kids they didn't need to be the best, just do their best. Having said that, I disagree with your last statement, because I don't believe he failed at anything. Did he run? Did he finish? Did he try? Did he participate? Did he learn? Did you learn? Did your family have great discussions about value and effort and adversity? Doesn't sound like any failure to me.

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