What to do when your child fails


I became a mother six years ago and I'll always remember one of the first truths my own mother told me about raising a child.

The second you figure your child and a particular phase out - the second you think "I got this!" - they change. 

I should have known kindergarten was going a little too smoothly. Despite my own misgivings about the beginning of elementary school, Griffin handled it well. We quickly established a morning routine that worked well for our family. Except for the occasional hunt for a rogue shoe, we have breakfast without too much yelling or prompting. There were never any tears or separation anxiety at drop off. We tackled homework easily and only had one day where Griffin went beyond "yellow" or a single warning for bad behavior. Most days he was on "green" for good behavior and seemed to sincerely enjoy going to school. 

In full disclosure, Griffin's kindergarten teacher is one of the best. She is warm, fun, and stays cool and calm at every turn. She also happens to be one of my dearest friends so we were more than a little bit spoiled on that front.

Between the great teacher and drama-free days, I had JUST started to pat myself on the back for a successful year. 

That was stupid. 

In my smugness, I had forgotten that about 40% of the drama-inducing events in elementary school are packed into the final few weeks of kindergarten. This month alone we have had a field trip to Land Between the Lakes, spring sports day, and the talent show.

The field trip was organizationally stressful but went great. Spring Sports Day was a bigger ask because my eldest child isn't exactly athletic. He basically woke up crying and I had to get my ribbons from my own elementary school days to show him that happiness could come in life without being good at potato sack races.

I actually wore one of my participation ribbons that day, which kept him smiling and giggling when he only got one ribbon himself. 

Then came the talent show.

At first, Griffin was a firm no. He did not want to participate. He did not want to sing. 

Fine. No skin off my back. 

Then, the form came back and "storytelling" was mentioned as a talent. Now, my son is not athletic and he is not a musician but my son IS a storyteller. Since he was old enough to say the word story, he has either been asking for stories or telling them himself. I mentioned that he could tell a Harry Potter story as his talent.

He was psyched.

I thought we would need to spend some time formulating the story but one day on the way home from school he basically told the entire story in one try.

"Every wizard has a wand. Every want has a story..."

I swelled with pride. I couldn't believe it. I suggested he add a small part explaining phoenixes but that was it. Over the next week or so, I would make him practice in front of different groups of adults and he always did great.

We even asked our library storyteller (and local legend) Ms. Retta for advice. She told him not to worry too much about everyone in the audience because he was giving them a gift. He was giving them a story.

I cried.

At Griffin's school, the talent show has several rounds. You perform in music class to advance to the semi-finals. Then, you perform for all the specials teachers and your own grade to advance to the finals. I asked my mommy advisors who reported that almost all kindergarteners make it through, as long as they are prepared.

Well, we were prepared!

Griffin made it through to the semifinals and we came to watch. Erma Bombeck once famously said that having children is making the decision to let your heart walk around outside your body and I have never felt the truth of that statement more profoundly than when I watched my son tell his story on stage.

He was nervous and made a few missteps but every time took a deep breath and continued on. He was wonderful. His classmates cheered. I cried (again). His face beamed with pride.

Honestly, I never even considered that he wouldn't make it through.

To my mind, he was a kindergartener who wrote an original story and then recited it on stage. His talent was unique and difficult for his age. I couldn't imagine that he wouldn't be rewarded. Plus, there were only a handful of kindergartners and I assumed they would all go on to the finals.

Well, I was wrong. I found out later that evening - despite his assurances that he had made it through - that was he not selected for the finals.

I was absolutely heartbroken. I cried (noticing a theme here) and went more than a little momma bear. Why did we need to reject kindergarteners!?!? Wasn't there enough losing at Spring Sports Day? We had to tack on some more! 

I even emailed the teacher in charge of the talent show and seriously considered emailing the principal.

I'm not exactly proud of these instincts. In that moment, I felt like I had failed my child by encouraging him to sign up for an experience for which I don't think he was (or needs to be) emotionally prepared. It's easy to say kids need to learn to lose and learn to deal with rejection but DANG! when it's your six-year-old in tears NEXT year seems like a fine time to sign up for that lesson.

We told him and he cried and I cried (yes, again). The universal advice was to stay calm and not get upset in front of him. However, my gut told me to be honest with my child because that's all I really can be. So, I told him I was just as upset as he was and that I thought the teachers made a really bad decision. I told him that the talent show seemed to be more about music and that maybe they didn't really appreciate storytelling. 

My favorite moment was when Nicholas looked at our son and joined me in throwing the parenting rulebook out the window.

"I'm not going to tell you you can do a better job next year because I think you did a great job this year." 

Griffin immediately calmed down. Instead of trying to talk him out of being upset, we sat with him and told him we were upset, too. We didn't try to fix it and I honestly think that helped more than anything else. We talked about how J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before a publisher accepted Harry Potter. We talked about that creating art is the most important thing you can do and that you can't let people stand in your way.

We talked about how he had given the gift of his story and that's what mattered.

He is fine. His best friend at school (who made it to the finals to which Griffin responded, "I'm glad he made it. He's the best kindergarten singer.") reported that Griffin was handling his rejecting like "a champ."

In other words, he's handling the next stage of childhood just fine. He learned that unfair things happen. He learned that moms and dads get upset. He learned that you can face rejection and come through the other side.

I wish the same could be said for me. 

I put my heart up on that stage and it took a serious beating. Recently, I told a friend that I think my strong personality gives the impression that I'm tough and, in certain situations, I suppose I am. However, I have an incredibly thin skin when it comes to rejection and - I've learned - basically no skin at all when it comes to my KIDS and rejection.

Tackling your kid's next phase when it only involves sleep regression or teething is a cinch. Tackling the next phase when it involves facing your own personal insecurities and emotional minefields is another thing altogether.

I had always assumed that it would be me shepherding my kids through each new and exciting phase of growing up. Turns out Griffin gave me more than the gift of a story up on that stage.

He taught me that sometimes my heart will be limping behind while he shows me the way.