12 Jan the beauty of disappointment
The buzzer went off. B pushed hard off the wall and began slicing through the water as fast as her little arms and legs would take her. She reminded me of a wind-up toy in the bathtub, chugging steadily across the surface.
Kris gave me a look that said, “she might actually win this.” B was the youngest in her heat, which consisted of seven other girls, but she wasn’t the slowest. Backstroke is her favorite event, and while she’s pretty good for her age, we never expect her to win against so many older, more experienced swimmers. We emphasize that she should try her best and have fun.
For most of the race, it looked like she’d hold onto second place. Yet, in the last 10 feet or so, she lost steam. She stopped kicking and drifted slowly to the wall. Fourth place.
No ribbon, but she’d beaten her fastest time, and everyone — her coaches included — was amazed at how well she’d done.
Bronwynn, however, was devastated. She’d wanted a ribbon. When she realized she wasn’t getting one, she started sobbing, tears and snot dripping from her nose.
Instantly, I wanted to make it better. I wrapped her in a warm towel, knelt down and told her how proud I was of her. Her little chest continued to heave as she cried, “If I did so great, why didn’t they give me a ribbon?”
My heart sank. She wanted tangible proof of her effort, and I wanted so much to give it to her. In some meets, they award ribbons for fourth place, or even fifth and sixth. But this wasn’t one of those meets. I thought about promising her a toy or treat or some other reward, but I stopped myself. No. This is a good thing, actually. As much as I hated seeing her so sad, as much as I wanted to cry with her, deep down I knew it was a good thing for her to feel the disappointment.
Here’s the thing. We work hard 24/7 to protect our kids. We shelter them from suffering, steer them away from bodily harm, and try to give them the tools they’ll need to thrive. As much as I’d love to choreograph the perfect childhood for my kids, I know that life is far from perfect. I’d rather B experience letdowns now while the stakes are low, so that she learns how to process painful feelings in a healthy way and move on. I don’t want her to be an adult who’s afraid to take risks for fear of failure. I don’t want life’s inevitable disappointments to swallow her whole. I want her to feel proud of herself and continue to work hard, even when there’s no immediate external reward.
Don’t get me wrong: Her feeling like a failure for seven hours a day at school is not okay. But getting fourth place at a swim meet? Not a problem.
After the race, several of B’s teammates came up to her and told her she’d done a great job. Her coach hugged her and said how proud she was of her. Not everyone wins a prize, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be proud and celebrate a great effort.
Within a few minutes, B stopped crying and joined her teammates for pizza. Soon, she was her giggly, silly self again. Later, at home, when we recounted our highs and lows of the day, she said, “my high today was the swim meet.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was my high,” she said. “I didn’t get a ribbon, but I swimmed really fast and I got to eat pizza before dinner.”
More Miles stories coming soon. He’s transforming before our eyes from a toddler into a little boy, so busy and curious and fearless. He’s tender and tough at the same time, and makes me smile all day. Last week, he started karate classes and is excited to be “in ninja training” with his best buddies. I was worried he was bored at the swim meet today, but he said it was his highpoint too, because he likes to watch B and someone gave him a cookie.