It is harder to raise the comeback kid than the golden child. And better.

It's the slog through the mud that matters. Especially if it isn't mud.

It’s the slog through the mud that matters. Especially if it isn’t mud.

What does success look like for your kid?

I think, to many of us, success—happiness, satisfaction, goals met—is supposed to look easy. Some of that is our culture. Our icons of cool tend to take it easy; they sail in and save the day with a few clever turns of phrase and without a hair out of place.

But much of it is just how we want life to be, minute by minute, for our children. We so want them to get the A, to make the team, to score the lead, to be surrounded by friends and applause. Who hasn’t envied the friend with the golden child, the one with all the gifts, who seems to sail through life so effortlessly, always in the front of the pack? Life seems like it must be so easy with the child who has it made; you’re not dealing with disappointment and frustration and envy and self-doubt, there’s no watching the child get up and face the morning when every single other child who auditioned made the school dance troop except for her and one other girl, and the whole team is right out front welcoming the new members.

But if you can just take the long view, you really want your kid to have to face that morning.

We know we should let our kids fail. But what most of us are really hoping for is “failure light.” Click To Tweet

We know we should let our kids fail. The trouble is, what most of us are really hoping for is “failure light.” We want to steel ourselves, refuse to bring in a few forgotten lunches and let them take in a pitiful, last-minute second grade State Fair project—and then they learn! And it’s all smooth sailing!! In our hearts, we’d still rather see our children ace the test the first time, make the team as a freshman and get in early decision to their college of choice. Those second and third chance comeback stories are great for other people, but not for our children.

We are so wrong when we think like that.

Of course we want every happiness and joy possible for our children. Those short horizon triumphs, though, don’t necessarily help our kids make their own way into their futures. Don’t hope your kids sail straight into the Ivies. Hope your kids know what they want and what it takes to get it. Teach your kids to believe, with every fiber of their beings, that they can pick themselves up and turn themselves around and make something happen in the face of any setback.

We have a tendency to think that a second chance is second best. The child who got into the university right off is the one who really belongs there, not the one who managed to transfer after a year of excelling at a community college. All the celebrity goes to the 18-year-old who heads straight to the majors, not to the 28-year-old who gets there after slogging  for a decade. Why do we want to be “born with it,” to “wake up this way,” to be a “natural,” when it’s work that breeds success? Even when we ourselves are the ones who had to work to get where we are, we question our own achievements, struggle with imposter syndrome and talk ourselves out of pursuing opportunities (especially if we’re women).

Forget the golden child. Forget the minute by minute. As I wrote in my last email, there are very few “universal truths” of parenthood, but here’s another one: What you want for your child now may not lead to what you want for your child in the future.  It’s hard to help a child through a failure, but it’s among the most important things we do. We’re there. We listen. We nod. We hug. We let them rant their way through the “I will never” and the “I can’t” and the “that wasn’t fair” into the “if only I’d” and “why didn’t I” and then through the crying and the self-incrimination and the fear until they get to “next time…”

It may take hours and it may take days, and that’s fine. When failure turns into “not yet” or “what’s next,” you can help your child to start making her own magic. Will she get up the morning after her name isn’t on the roster for the basketball team, congratulate her friends, then go out and shoots hoops, and beg for the ride to the Y, and takes every opportunity to show the coaches that next year, she’ll be ready? Or will he persuade the drama teacher to teach him how to run the light board in the school auditorium because he’s realized it’s the illusion, even more than the performances, that captivates him? Can she own her disappointment and make a plan, or turn her anger into determination? Can he try again, or set his sights—with excitement—on something else?

The kid who can start again is the kid who is ready for the long game.

Lots of us tend to think of “grit” as something that’s reserved for the children who have obvious challenges. It’s what gets them to the Ivy League from the projects, or earns them a top SAT score in spite of dyslexia. But grit is really just what gets you up when you’re down, what walks you into the classroom to say, I screwed this up, how can I make it better, or what lets you pursue the weird side interest, like studying the dirt that’s left in the hole when everyone else is digging for gold. It’s drive and it’s will and it’s flexibility. Raise a child who wants something (pretty much anything) and knows how to make a plan for getting there, and you’ve raised someone who will get somewhere, no matter how long it takes.

What you want for your child now may not lead to what you want for your child in the future. Click To Tweet

6 Responses to “It is harder to raise the comeback kid than the golden child. And better.”

  1. As a longtime theater teacher, I always preferred “worker bees” to stars. Give me the kids who want to be good, who want to get better, who will listen and take direction. “Stars” tend to play it safe to protect their status. I have a long list of kids who were stage managers, did tech, costumes and watched carefully while waiting their turn. Some of those same kids work as professional actors now. Talent is useful. Fire in the belly gets you there.

  2. Di Feekings says:

    Beautifully stated truth

  3. Jo Clarke says:

    When my daughter was about 12 she announced with utter conviction that it was my job, as her mum, to “make her happy”! Without so much as a pause for breath I heard myself respond “No Madi, it’s not my job to make you happy, it’s my job to teach you the skills to manage when you’re not”! And I’m so glad I did! She’s 18 now and had her share of knock backs and failures, and she is one of the most resilient young women I know. I have also worked in academia and have meet too many undergrads and postgrads who not only can’t manage failure, but struggle with anything less than “perfect” (whatever that is!!). My career (in prisons) has led me to set up a non-profit organisation with “Resilience for Life” as it’s mission statement. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly with this article and wish we taught our children from a very young age that resilience, not success, is the key to a happier, more fulfilling life.

  4. Valerie Fairchild says:

    Yes! Read “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough! It is such a great example of patience, perseverance and passion! A lesson for all of us to never give up and reach for the stars!

  5. KJ says:

    thank you so much!This one was a long time learning in the writing… I won’t deny that it’s still hard to embrace. It’s HARD to watch kids have real failures and struggles. But we really have to embrace it.