For a period of about seven or years, I consistently had middle school students in my home. My oldest three were born in close enough succession that it was a chain of unbroken adolescence.
The youngest of those three is now a high school senior. Two of them are well into young adulthood as happy, well-adjusted people who show every indication of becoming productive members of society.
Now, after this interim, I have another middle schooler this year! Once more, our home rings with the dulcet tones of an adolescent who is navigating middle school and all that comes with it.
Having been through this before, and having the advantage of seeing 150ish students a year, I've done a lot of reflection on what worked well before, and what didn't. I've thought about what I learned and things I want to do differently. In case it's useful to anyone else, I thought I'd pass on some of things I'll do differently.
Melding my experience as a parent with my experience as a teacher, I've decided the biggest thing I'd do differently is this: I'm going to devote the best of my energy and the bulk of my time to coaching him through long-term issues, and spend less time worrying about short term ones. Another way to put this is to address problems, not the episodes that bring them to my attention; to focus on causes, not on symptoms.
In other words, I'm going to try to be strategic with my parenting, and less tactical.
I think I probably did this in reverse last time around. In retrospect, my wife and I were so busy putting out various fires that we didn't do as much long-term coaching. The kids still learned what they needed to, and I don't have serious regrets, but instead of doing 70% fighting fires and 30% coaching, I am going to try to reverse that.
I'm especially going to try to build emotional habits like grit, resilience, and problem-solving skills. I've noticed that immature behaviors tend to go away with time. But immature emotional habits can persist.
When your child has a teacher that is difficult for him, if she has friend struggles, a hard class, if he or she doesn't get chosen for the team, or get the part in the play it is very difficult. It feels like a BIG deal. But it's very temporary. And yet, I feel like this sort of thing is where we often invest parenting energies.
When I look back at the things that consumed my last child's time in middle school--the things that she and I worried about--I realize that most of it just doesn't matter anymore. It's gone. I've learned is that the specific, day-to-day stuff, the skirmishes of adolescence, really aren't all that important, although they feel like it at the time.
Being tactical, and trying to win specific battles is always going to be a part of parenting, I suppose. But it's so easy to get caught up in the moment that you lose the big picture.
So, I'm going to worry less about specific assignments and much more about helping him develop study skills.
I'm not going to worry if he has some failures. In fact, while I won't set him up to fail, I hope he does have some failures. I'm not going to bail him out. These struggles are so important for growth--and he needs to learn to cope and adjust now while the stakes are low. I don't want his first failure to be when he's got his first job.
I'm going to worry less about him getting playing time/positive attention from a coach or teacher and focus more helping on developing a good attitude and giving his best efforts regardless.
I'm going to worry less about social ups-and-downs (they are inevitable), and more on helping him be the kind of kid people want to be around.
The single biggest thing I'm going to focus on with him are these related principles:
The only thing you ultimately can control is yourself. People will disappoint you. Life will be hard. In middle school, in high school, and beyond. That won't change. The sooner you learn to take focus on your choices, and I'm going to try to help him be less focused on what others do, and far more focused on taking responsibility for what he did. Middle school students are incredibly focused on what other people do to them. It's hard for them to look at their own responsibilities in problematic situations.
But this focus on blaming others can easily become a habit. Maturity takes care of a lot of things, but people who don't learn to accept responsibility seem to struggle with that for the rest of their lives.
The related principle is this: every choice has consequences--some are good, some are bad, and some are not really either--they are trade-offs. You are free to choose--but you are not free to opt out of the consequences of your choice.
There are no perfect options. Trade-offs exist. Humans simply can't have it all, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, is selling you something, or is trying to get your vote. A happy life is learning to make the best choices you can and then accept the trade-offs and consequences that come.
I am a firm believer in the idea that kids need to work their own problems out. The world can be difficult and kids need grit to succeed. Recently, I heard about employer who had an employee's mother call him to demand that he change her son's work schedule. The son was a new employee and schedules were done according to seniority. One hears about this more and more often and it is worrisome--both for the long-term prospects of the child as well as our collective future.
To intervene is to cripple them and reduce their ability to function in the world. But then--bam! My child gets too much homework, or someone is mean, or--any number of other things. Suddenly, all my beliefs about non-intervening get tossed out and I'm ready to be a micro-managing helicopter parent.
I don't think it's just me. I believe most parents recognize that it can be unhealthy to intervene too much. They understand that on a theoretical level. But then, a child has difficulty, your parental instincts kick in, and suddenly you are devoting all your resources to solving a problem for your child.
This has happened to me very recently. There was a situation in which I intervened and later realized I shouldn't have. Then, there was another situation in which I did not intervene and now think I should have.
So, how do you know when to intervene and when not to?
I've been thinking a lot about this, and while I don't pretend to have all the answers, I have come with a few thoughts.
1. Is your child in serious physical danger? You should probably intervene. I say "probably" because I think the level matters. A skinned knee or bruises? No. A broken limb? Yes.
2. Is your child's long-term health and/or happiness at stake? A test, several assignments, a role in a play, playing time in a game, even a final grade in a class do not rise to this level, in my judgment. Be careful with this one. It can play tricks on you, and you can easily convince yourself that intervening is necessary.
3. Is there a power imbalance at play? Kids need to learn to work through problems. They need to learn to express concerns to their teachers and peers. Disagreements are a chance to learn how to work through these problems. Bullying is different. It involves a power imbalance, repetition, and intentionality. Someone who is being truly bullied may not be able to solve the problem using his or her own resources. Note that a lot of what people call bullying is not true bullying. It's mean, it's discouraging, it's difficult--but it's not bullying.
4. Ask yourself this: "If I don't intervene what is the worst thing that will happen?" The answer to this question is illuminating. It leads me to realize that usually the stakes are not terribly high. I might be frustrated, my child might be frustrated, and so on. There is rarely a serious, long-term consequence.
5. If you think it is serious, then add this question. "Even if it is serious, is this problem worse than inhibiting my child's problem-solving abilities?"
6. Do an ego check. I am confident that a lot of parental interventions stem more from wounded pride, bruised egos, latent insecurities, and other similar parental issues. Asking myself why I really care is often very illuminating for things like this. I really think that's true.
7. Do you intervene a lot? If everything looks like an emergency, then your view of emergencies might have become inflated. If you find yourself saying things like, "I would never want to be the kind of parent who xyz, but..." more than once or twice every few months, I would be very careful and do some reflection. Intervention is a habit, and it can be hard to see. But if your child is constantly needing intervention, I suggest that might a warning sign. You might ask a trusted outside observer.
8. Is everyone out to get your child? If you feel that lots of people--coaches, teachers, etc.--don't appreciate or understand your child, that would be a big red flag. I'm not saying that would never be true. But I think it's unlikely enough to give some serious pause.
9. Last of all, it is my experience that policies and procedures are not usually random or arbitrary. Generally there is a reason someone created a rule or policy. Chances are that there is a reason that coach didn't play your child, or that the teacher gives so much homework. Maybe not, but it would be good to try to explore that before you intervene.
10. When was the last time you coached your child through how to solve a problem?
11. When was the last time you saw your child solve a problem?
A final caution: make sure you understand the full context and details of the problem. Sometimes there are nuances and levels of meaning that might give additional insight. It can be embarrassing to intervene and then find out your understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.
What are some things that have worked for you in deciding when to intervene?
This is going to be short because the big musical is this week. Dress rehearsals followed by performances, so that's occupying most of the bandwidth here at bradenbell.com.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a "Love and Logic" seminar by Dr. Charles Fay. This was really good. Most conferences/seminars I've gone to were lame to "meh." This was exceptional. It has already changed my teaching and parenting.
One of the concepts Dr. Fay discussed really resonated with me. He talked about considering whether our word was "garbage" or "gold." Garbage means that your words are empty threats. "You kids stop that right now or you're going to be sorry!" as opposed to "If you are unable to sit in the backseat without fighting we will turn around and go home, instead of the going out to eat."
Specificity, clarity, detail all help with making sure that kids know your word is gold. And then, of course, follow through. This is the one that is hard for me. But I tried an experiment and did a few things in my classroom where I set forth an expectation and the consequence. I realized as I did, that I had been inconsistent with the application of consequences. I just really love my students and don't like coming down on them.
Here's the thing. I already know this principle. It's a very basic principle. I know it, but I had slipped and become sloppy. It's easy for that to happen.
But as I thought about it, I realized that my word was garbage. At least it was pretty muddy. So, I've made a few efforts.
1. I don't say anything unless I really mean it.
2. All my consequences are specific and clear.
3. Whatever I say, I do. And no amount of tears, puppy dog eyes, or promises of future reformation sway me.
In the last two weeks that I've been doing this at both home and school, I've noticed an enormous difference.
If you have an adolescent, chances are that they see nearly everything as an opportunity for a negotiation.
"Can I go to the movie?"
"But, I promise to....everyone else...." and on and on. What seems like a simple, declarative sentence to you seems like an invitation to an extended debate with an adolescent. It can be exhausting.
Over the years, I have come up with various ways of addressing this at home or school. One of my favorite lines came from my boss. He simply said, "You're mistaking this for a discussion. The answer is 'no'."
I always liked that, but I found one lately that works beautifully. I've tried it at home with younger kids and at school with my adolescents. I got it from Lynn Lott and it is so easy. When the child comes back at you, you say, "Did you ask that already?"
"And did I answer it?"
"Okay then, asked and answered."
You have to do this one time. After that, anytime they try the same behavior, you say, "Asked and answered."
I read about this on a blog post somewhere and was skeptical that it would work with some of the world-class debaters I have at home and school. But I tried it, and it was really quite amazing. I've been trying it now for a few weeks and it continues to work.
So, I'm very happy to pass this on. Good luck!
Years ago when I wrote my very first book, someone read it and was quite dismissive. I didn't mind that the person didn't like it. That's life, and I don't begrudge anyone their opinion. I did, however, bristle a bit at what I thought was a patronizing response. This was especially true because this person didn't have any particular credentials or expertise other than that they considered their opinion to be that of an expert.
Some time later, this person published a book. I was a judge in a competition in which the book was entered. I read it and thought it was pretty good. Not great, but good. But there were some very basic mistakes I thought this author had made--the kind of things many first time authors (myself included) do early on.
Other works in that contest were stronger and so I honestly voted for one of them.
Still, it reminded me of a basic lesson in life that applies to parenting. Be kind to others. Don't judge too quickly. You may well be in the same situation someday.
One of the points I try to make often is that middle school kids are kids. By definition, they are not very mature or experienced.
Adults have experience to draw on. They have perspective and what I call emotional depth perception. Kids have none of these things. They are currently making the mistakes that will give them experience and help them learn perspective.
That process is much like walking. You simply have to learn on your own. No one can do it for you. There are no short-cuts.
So, it is important to remember that children, yours and others, will do stupid things. They will act in ways that hurt others. They will embarrass you. They will do things that will be totally in opposition to what you have taught them. They will.
They will go to school with others who are in this same phase. Other children who will do stupid, mean, ill-advised, thoughtless, careless things that will mortify their parents too.
It is easy to sit and judge another person's child as being deficient, malevolent, or poorly brought up. Resist that urge and show the forbearance you would like when your child does the same thing.
I say "when" and not "if" on purpose. If your child never messes up then something is seriously wrong and he or she is not progressing or maturing in a normal way.
Sometimes being tolerant is easy. Perhaps another person's child just does something immature or silly, but no harm is done. That's easy.
However, what if that child does something that hurts your child's feelings? Or causes them to lose an important ball game? Or get a bad grade on a project? Or any number of other things.
Now it's harder. Anytime our children experience difficulty, those incidents trigger the mama/papa bear instincts in us all. However, I strongly suggest resisting the urges to get involved. Absorb the drama, don't feed it.
Don't talk about it with other parents, don't form a negative opinion. Just let it go--and give your child the gift of learning how to let go as well.
Life tends to change the roles we play often. It's best to establish a merciful standard of judgement, not knowing when we will need it applied to ourselves or our children.
Note: I'm not talking about allowing your child to be in danger. I'm not talking about bullying. But don't conflate bullying with garden-variety, plain old immaturity. Bullying generally involves a few criteria: 1) A power imbalance; 2) An element of intentionality, and 3) A continued, consistent pattern. Bullying is a real problem and it needs to be dealt with as it has harmful complications. But it's important to make sure that it's really bullying. Most of unkind, hurtful, immature things I see are not bullying.
Assuming we are not talking about bullying, show the same forbearance that you would hope someone will show your child when s/he does something stupid or mean--as they most assuredly will.
Some time ago, I had a wild and unruly kid in my theatre program. A parent (not the parent of the child) asked me why I didn't come down on him harder. I demurred and said something non-comital, but I didn't tell the whole story.
I directed my first play at the age of 15, and did the second and third in close succession. Like most 15 year olds, I was immature. This meant that I had insecurities masked as a large ego, and was prone to be impatient.
My plays met with some success, which made me even worse. I was terrified of not meeting the expectations I'd established.
During one of the plays, The Wizard of Oz, one of the stage crew made a mistake. He was supposed to move a rolling platform out on-stage during a blackout, before the backdrop came down. The platform that held the Scarecrow who was not supposed to be mobile yet.
Well the kid forgot. I don't remember if it was an honest mistake or goofing off, but I was livid. The lights went up and there's a cornfield backdrop, but no platform and no Scarecrow.
The resourceful actor playing the Scarecrow realized his platform wasn't coming on, so he lifted the backdrop and crawled out underneath it and then stood as if he was on a post.
I was livid. Furious. Enraged. Seething. I ran backstage and pulled that stage crew kid out in the hall and let him have it. I don't know what I said, but I was furious and out of control.
It took me a few years and some hard lessons to realize that during a performance, I get tense and can get very, very angry.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to allow for this. So, I made a few rules for myself. I don't wear a head-set during the performance since I don't want to be in the position of yelling at the light tech if they mess up, or screaming at the stage manager if a set change goes awry.
I always calm down after a few minutes, so I've learned to not allow myself to act until that happens. This provides a buffer that keeps me from making a mistake I'll later regret.
The reason I didn't come down on this crazy kid in the past was because I didn't trust myself to do it in a rational way. I felt that my tendency would be to be too harsh, and I had to adjust accordingly. In my mind, it was better to not come down on the kid in question than to come down in disproportionate anger.
Some people who read this post will be surprised. I am known, I think, as being fairly patient and kind. But that was not my nature and not how I started. By knowing my weaknesses I was able to develop rules for myself that helped me compensate for and work around the weaknesses. These habits served me well, allowing me the time to develop patience. The habit became a stand-in for the actual trait.
I find that when I check my temper, I do err a bit on the side of indulgence. However, and this is important, I don't error nearly as far on that side of the spectrum as I would if I were erring on the temper side. I am closer to where I want to be, even though I'm not perfect. A good teacher is both loving and strict, right in the middle of those two attributes. But my natural tendencies might pull me ten or fifteen degrees too far towards strict. If I compensate, I might end up four degrees on the kind side. I'm much closer to the ideal, even though I'm still not perfect.
We are all going to make mistakes. No parent will be perfect. No teacher will be perfect. In my mind, the trick is understanding where we are likely to make our mistakes and then adjusting. Sometimes we might adjust a little too much. But I would argue that in those cases we are still more likely to be nearer the ideal than we would with no adjustment.
I've met some parents who are, by nature, helicopter parents. Their every instinct and trait pushes them to that extreme. They need to figure out some rules and guidelines, and develop some habits that will check them in this tendency. They might go too far to an extreme sometimes, but their child will be better off, I think since that extreme will be closer to the gold mean than the helicopter parenting.
I've met other parents who are the exact opposite--Tiger parents who could stand to mellow out a bit, for their children's sake.
All of us have natural weaknesses, areas where we are likely to make mistakes.
I've come to believe that, as parents, we don't get to choose whether we'll make mistakes. But we can, I believe, choose which mistakes to make, understanding that some mistakes may actually get us closer to where we want to be.
I think in the next few weeks, I'll do some blogs about figuring out where our weaknesses and blind spots are, and how we go about this process.
I thought I'd post a follow-up to my post last week about the long-term value of disappointment. There are a few important essentials to remember when dealing with disappointment. While I'm coming from my experience as a middle school theatre director, I think most of these principles are applicable in many different areas and endeavors.
First of all, remember that you are seeing this in very subjective terms. You are focusing on your child and how they feel. That's fine, and it's your job as a parent.
But the teacher/coach/director/whomever does not have that luxury. That person has too look at the general welfare of everyone involved. S/he cannot consider personal feelings, dreams, or ambitions.
And the truth is, you wouldn't want him or her to do this. Seriously, you wouldn't.
I will assume the reason your child wants to be in the play, on the team, squad or club is because they enjoy the activity. Keep that in mind. But I will also assume that they want to be in this play/team because the program is pretty good and the child feels that the program can offer them something.
But the program is only good because the person in charge focuses on the good of the program. The moment he or she starts letting personal considerations be the basis of decisions, the quality of the program begins to decline. And then, the very experience you had wanted for your child begins to suffer. Or, should the director/coach make decisions for your child based on personal reasons--but assess everyone else on merit?
So, don't be angry that the person who built a program good enough to interest your child continues to run the program with the same standards and approach that helped build that program. Also realize that if you are upset, you are the one who is breaking the tacit agreement. They've done their job--and unless they insulted your child somehow or were rude, then they've done exactly what they were supposed to do. Note: not casting/playing your child does not count as insult.
If your child gets a smaller role or doesn't start, or whatever, put your natural resentment away. Be grateful your child gets to have an experience they ostensibly love and be a part of a program they want to join. If they don't even get on the team or in the cast, then I have a few suggestions. Talk to the person in charge and find out if there was a reason. Maybe there is something your child can learn and improve in--a particular weakness or deficit that can be made up with time and attention.
Or perhaps not. And that's okay too. Maybe this isn't the hobby or pursuit that is best suited to your child.
But let me give a caveat with that. Every year, I have people come talk to me after auditions and ask for feedback. Some of them are sincere and want to hear what they can improve. Others just want me to give some compliments or to promise them that they'll do better next time. I don't have much patience for the first, and cannot promise the second. Only ask if you truly want feedback. And, also realize that there may not be much you can do.
I can't speak much about athletics, but in theatre, sometimes it's not that a person has a deficit. Sometimes it's just a matter of "fit." One person clicks in the role better than the other. It's just the way it is and it has nothing to do with talent or anything. Think Will Smith and Will Ferrell. Both are talented, highly-paid professionals. But they are not interchangeable. Different roles would fit them in different ways.
Here are a few more thoughts.
It's almost never personal. You and your child might experience it personal terms, but for the director or coach, it seriously isn't. All my life I've heard people say that some coach, some director, some choreographer, some authority figure played favorites. They cast so-and-so because they liked her better, or gave such-and-such more playing time because his dad is their friend, a donor--whatever.
I'm not saying this never happens. But in my experience, it happens far, far less than I hear people say it does. The truth is that most coaches want to win games. Most theatre directors want the strongest cast. It's really pretty simple. I suppose all of us are subject to human error, but I am convinced that these sort of things happen far, far less than I hear people mutter. They might make mistakes, their plans and strategies might go amiss. But I really think most people in these positions are trying to do the best you can.
More likely is that the teacher/coach/director is simply balancing a myriad of factors that most people have absolutely no idea about. And, it may be that your child's best interests are one of those factors. I have had students in the past who had nice voices or good acting skills--but crumpled under even mild pressure or difficulty. Giving such a child a lead would be incredibly cruel
I've learned from long experience that the best way to get through this kind of thing is to trust the good intentions of the person who made the decision--and then move on. My son wanted badly to be the Drum Major in his high school marching band. He did not get that position. I still think he would have been good. But he had a wonderful experience his senior year anyway. What he really loved was marching band. And that is what he got to do.
There are days when I look at myself and wonder how in the world I manage to tie my shoelaces and drive to work. You know--the days you start to wonder just how dense you can be?
Today was one of those days. I realized something and wanted to kick myself. Let me explain.
Last week, my MSM post was about rewarding and reinforcing good behavior rather than trying to change less-desirable actions. And I really believe that. But you have to be careful with what you reward.
Last spring, during March Madness, I came up with an idea I thought was pretty good. You see, the boys in my middle school chorus classes tend to grumble and growl instead of singing. They don't want to sing high notes and so they try to sing everything an octave too low. But their voices don't really go that low. So it ends up in a sort of monotone growl.
We working on a song and I was at my wit's end. Could not get them to sing the right notes. They weren't even high--just higher than the growls they were doing.
In a flash of inspiration, I had them line up in my classroom and take turns shooting foul shots in the basketball hoop I keep there. They each did and then we talked about baskets. Some shots miss completely, so barely make it, and some arc up over the rim drop down through the hoop and swish through--nothing but net.
We talked about singing like that. Singing up and over and landing down on the note. Going high if it needs it, but not shooting too low on our singing. Nothing but note (see what I did there?).
Well, I felt like it worked. We did that exercise and then sang and it got better. I developed a specific conducting motion to remind them of this idea.
The next day things were bad again. So I had them line up and do the same thing. And again it improved a little.
Do you see the problem? Do you see what I did without meaning to?
I rewarded their bad singing. Everytime they did this badly, they get to shoot a basketball.
I stand by the initial idea. It was a good idea, I think. A way to help them translate a concept into something familiar and kinesthetic.
But to be more effective, once we'd had the initial lesson, I should have let them shoot hoops whenever they did it well--not when I wanted to remind them of what to do. Without meaning to, I set up a powerful incentive to not sing the way I wanted them to.
So, I believe in rewarding good behavior and positive actions.
However, you have to be careful with the way you do it!
And now I have learned and will be changing this situation tomorrow.
Middle School Mondays: When Your Child Lies, Cheats, or Steals and Otherwise Does Something That Conflicts With Your Values
First of all, please note that I said when your child does something wrong. Not if. When. The chances are very remote that they never will do something wrong.
Over the years I can't count the number of times I've had a conversation something like this:
"Mr./Mrs. X, your child did such-and-such a thing."
"What? But how could he do that? We've taught him/her better than that!" The thing is, the parent is completely truthful. They have taught them better.
The sort of incidents I describe here are usually moderate infractions. They are a little more serious than very minor things, but not terribly major either. For example, someone taking something small from another person, destroying some small object, or showing disrespect.
For example, I once had some students who were rehearsing in another teacher's room. They saw some candy in the room and took it. When I told their mom, she was appalled. "I've taught them not to steal!" She was angry with them, and a more than a little embarrassed.
This actually happens quite a bit. Kids see something laying around and since it doesn't apparently belong to anyone, they take it.
Or, they ruin something, some property belonging to someone else. This is almost always thoughtless, rather than malicious. Parents respond to this like the issues of minor stealing. "I can't believe he would do that! We respect other people's property in our house..."
The list can go on and on. Kids do things all the time that adults consider to be stealing or cheating or destruction of property and on and on. The parents are baffled because they feel they have taught their children to be honest, to respect property, to not cheat, and so on.
The children, however, are often baffled as well.
Here's the thing to remember. Adults are able to generalize and apply to specific situations more than kids. We hear "don't steal" and know that means you don't take anything that doesn't belong to you. Kids hear that and agree with it--but it doesn't necessarily translate down to the micro level of taking some candy from an empty desk. The same kids who would never consider robbing a bank or taking an iPod from someone simply don't connect the dots to less dramatic
The basic principle to remember is that, as far as the kids can see, they haven't done anything all that wrong. The adult sees that they've stolen. They see that they were hungry and a jar of candy was sitting there. And, being a bit egocentric, they sort of just assume it was there for their use. Or, even more likely, they simply didn't think about anything at all.
My suggestion in cases like this is to not overreact. The child needs to be taught. You can help them connect the dots. They will inevitably say something like, "But I didn't know that was Mrs. Z's candy!" To which you reply, "Yes, but you know it's not yours, right? It doesn't matter who it belongs to you when you know it's not yours. That's stealing. I know you didn't think it was, but that's the definition of stealing." And so on. The child made a mistake, but did not mean to go against your teaching. There was just a connection that didn't happen.
Try not to react out of embarrassment. I have done this as a parent, and I have seen other parents do it. In cases such as these, it's easy to overreact. You are upset at the child, and you are also embarrassed. There can be a temptation to show everyone that you are appalled by really coming down hard on the kid. This is the time to remember that it's really not about you.
There should be discipline of some kind, but it should be a chance to learn, not to be punished or humiliated. Paying for the stolen or damaged item and a sincere apology can go a long way.
In many places, it's the season of graduation and year-end celebrations, so I think it might be valuable to talk about the giving of awards. Specifically, what to do when your child doesn't get one.
Last week, our school had an awards assembly. During this awards assembly several awards were given. My Kindergarten son did not receive one, although several of his good buddies did.
As we drove home, we had an interesting conversation. At first he mentioned the awards ceremony (I didn't bring it up), assuring me that he hadn't really wanted an award. But as we talked, he opened up enough to admit that he was struggling with the fact that he didn't get an award and his friend did.
Here's the thing: he had a wonderful, wonderful year. I'm talking so wonderful that he cried on weekends and was discouraged over Christmas and spring breaks because he couldn't be in school.
He loved his year! But at this moment, all those happy memories and all the fun he had were quickly minimized because he didn't get an award. Hold that thought for a minute.
Back to the story: I assured him that his feelings were very natural and normal, and then we talked about the choice he had to make. He could focus on feeling unhappy for himself, or try to be happy for his friend. I explained that each of these feelings were sort of like living things. Whichever one he fed with his thoughts and feelings would get bigger. I asked him which one he thought was the better thought, which one he wanted to encourage.
Happily, he decided he wanted to try to focus on being happy for his friend.
It's funny because as soon as he made that conscious decision, it didn't seem to matter to him anymore, and his good memories of the year are back.
Awards are kind of a mixed blessing, aren't they? They are wonderful when you get one. When you don't? Not so much. People really struggle with this. I've found that myself. I have been in many situations where I was nominated for an award that I didn't end up winning. Let's be honest: it stings. It can even hurt. The human response is to be mad at the winner, or the givers of the award. Or both.
But this is the wrong response! It's wrong because it's unfair to the others involved. It's wrong because it's arrogant and narcissistic (why do we assume we deserved the award? Perhaps there were factors of which we aren't aware).
But mostly it's wrong because it will bring misery to the person who indulges in this kind of response.
Here's the point I think is important to consider: if your child is being nominated for an award, chances are it is something they like and are good at. Chances are they have fun or draw some satisfaction from this activity. Focus on that, not the award! Focus on the intrinsic value, focus on what they learned and did. Don't focus on the award--or the lack thereof. If you do, then you run the risk of tainting those happy memories. And that would be a huge shame. It is the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish if you think about it.
Over the years I've noticed something. The people who don't get awards are tempted to let the lack of the award make everything that came before suddenly have no value. In other words, someone might have years and years of happy memories from an activity--a sport or plays or something else. They might have had fun with their friends, learned and grown, and had all kinds of other benefits. The day before the award was given, these were good and happy memories, and their recollection of their time in this activity was positive.
But then they don't get the award and suddenly it all changes. Those happy memories fade and hurt and bitterness appear. And that leads to unhappiness. Don't let that happen!
It's not only that memories can be ruined. I've also seen relationships ruined over the lack of an award. Teacher-student relationships that were close and wonderful, or the relationships between two friends or colleagues that became strained. What a shame!
Honestly, short of a Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize, most awards don't really tend to mean as much as life goes on. Seriously, how many adults are still all that excited about the awards they won in elementary or middle school--or even high school?
However, it is a sad mark of the times that parents and students are driven to quantify every activity by achievement. We can no longer simply enjoy doing something. We have to be the best--and prove it. I have seen students collect awards and accolades like some people collect stamps. But they get no joy from these awards. Only misery if they don't get one. It's the 21st century equivalent of being a miser; these are adolescent Silas Marners.
Which is my son going to treasure more in the long run? A really great Kindergarten year or getting that award? Chances are, had he received an award, he would have forgotten in a week or two. A year and it would be ancient history. But his good and happy memories of his year? Those can last a lifetime.
So--when your child doesn't get the award, stop a minute. Acknowledge the real sting, but then re-direct. Focus on what they got from the experience. And give them the gift of memories and growth that will last for the rest of their lives.
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