Friday, August 15, 2008

Permission to Fail

Today was Bambina's last day at summer camp. I dragged my behind out of bed, into the shower, and into the car to pick her up because I had stupidly promised this AM that I would. She's been ready for a vacation for about the last two weeks. When I got there to pick her up I received her performance report for swimming. It said that she is afraid of the water and then went to great lengths to explain that much effort had been expended trying to fix this. It was not a surprise since the teachers had been giving me daily progress reports on Bambina's pool issues. I always brushed them off because I quite frankly did not care, but it is clear that a lot of parents did, if the teacher reactions are anything to go by.

Is it weird that I am totally okay with the notion that my kid is not going to be great at everything she does? Obviously we want her to learn how to swim (or as I like to say, "Learning to Not Drown is absolutely non-negotiable"), and it would be doubly great if she learned to love swimming. But if she doesn't ever love swimming and doesn't ever bring home 8 gold medals? I'm at peace with that. I'm more than "at peace" with it, actually. I'm positively supportive of it.

So why the teacher drama? It makes me wonder what kind of perfectionist parents they deal with all day that they feel they have to trip over themselves to assure me that they really have tried to get my 4 year-old swimming in spite of her lack of cooperation. They also reacted similarly when Bambina didn't eat a lot of her lunch. They explained, they detailed the methods they used to encourage her to eat her lunch, etc. Every time, I tried to cut off the conversation (recognizing that it's hard to have any kind of meaningful exchange with a teacher at dropoff and pickup) with, "We don't worry about what Bambina eats; but thank you anyway." Who are the parents thinking that it's a teacher's job to make their kid eat?! Or love swimming?! My job is to provide the lunch; it's Bambina's job to eat it if she's hungry. End of story. If she doesn't eat it, then she's going to be hungry by afternoon snack time. Whatever!

So, as well as feeling bad for these teachers, I feel doubly bad for those kids. Can you imagine growing up with parents who feel that everything you touch should turn to gold? That you must show aptitude in all areas of life? Helloo?! How many adults have universal aptitude? Precisely Zero. So why do we expect it from our kids? As I pondered the teachers' explanations and Bambina's clearly frustrated swimming instructor's report, I wondered if maybe I'm just a total slacker mom, that maybe I am promoting mediocrity, that maybe if I really loved my kid I'd put more effort into having her meet all these external expectations as a means to get ahead. But I just keep coming back to the same place: Bambina (as if it should even be needed) has my permission to fail.

I want her to try everything that interests her, and succeed or fail or flame out or whatever, as she is able. After all, don't we do our kids a disservice when we deny them both opportunities and permission to be mediocre at something? Isn't that a key life lesson, that sometimes you're just not going to be good at something? That while anything is indeed possible, it's okay to just be okay at something, it's okay to try an activity and not like it, it's okay to like something and not be good at it but practice really hard until you are good at it?

Such is the story of me and high school tennis. I loved tennis. I wanted to marry Andre Agassi and have two boys named Ivan Lendl Agassi and Boris Becker Agassi, and a girl named Martina Evert Agassi. I was, however, not good at tennis when I tried out for the team. I knew this and asked my parents if I should even bother. They said, "better to try it out and not make it than sit around wondering if you might have." So I tried out, and seeing as my town was a football/softball kind of town, the team had open slots and I made the team in spite of my woeful serve and volley. I practiced so hard that summer that I passed out some days from the heat. I devoured books like Tennis From Within and Martina's how-to book. I wanted it so badly and I worked for it. By the next season I made first singles and felt so glad I'd taken the risk to try out.

Success?! Not quite. I then began playing first singles against the other towns, which were tennis towns if you know what I mean (team trips to Hilton Head in February! Professional coaching paid for by wealthy parents!) and got my ass seriously handed to me every single time I played. So what did I learn? First, that it was okay to try something and potentially fail. Second, that it was okay to work and practice really hard at something that did not come naturally to me. And third, that it was okay to work really hard only to find that sometimes, someone is going to be better than me.

All of these have been really important life lessons that have stayed with me. What would have happened if my parents had said, "Don't bother; you're not good" or worse, "Try out and we'll get totally involved and make it clear that we expect you to absolutely excel in all areas of tennis or render us disappointed"? It seems that we are programmed to tell our kids how wonderful they are, how smart they are, how capable they are for fear that not doing so will harm their self-esteem and, god forbid, future college and job prospects. But how can you possibly prepare your child to live in the real world if you don't teach them that, as special and wonderful as they are, they will not always be The Best or The Prettiest or The Funniest or The Fastest? That the world is full of other really special kids who love tennis and can kick their asses in what they DO; none of which means anything about who our kids ARE.

Let me be clear that I'm not talking about letting your kid have no drive, no interests and no commitment to anything, nor am I saying we should ever stand in the way of their dreams (assuming of course that the child's dream for olympic glory, TV fame, Broadway success is indeed their own). I'm simply saying that perhaps it's best to not expect your 4 year old to shine reflected light onto you.


Anonymous said...

My kid's pre school is the same. Extremely over involved parents who are worried about their 4 and 5 year old's performance as if there is such a thing as a 5 year old 'performing.' The second the kid says he likes soccer they sign him up for lessons so he can get better. 5 year olds don't need to get better. They just need to play and have fun. I wonder too sometimes if my kids will be these losers compared with all the kids being so overeducated and overscheduled at the age of 4. I kind of think they'll end up better for it, for having had the chance to be kids and not have to meet rigorous standards at such a young age.

Anonymous said...

I do recall a conversation from JP that went like this...E, if you can get an A in a subject why can't you get an A+? But dad, they don't have an A+ on report cards. E, they used to in Jr. High school, what's wrong with High school teachers don't they know my wee girl is all A+?

So even though you tanked at sports, you had parents that pushed you in your area of expertise-School. So my advice is find what your kid is actually good at (soccer/art/sport/cooking/whatever) and push them when you KNOW they can do it :)