Some thoughts on success, failure, and letting our kids be kids

"I decided that I just like to make comic books that are interesting, but don't have any pictures."

This, from the brain and mouth of a very smart six year old. I sit down to write, but he interrupts me:
"mom you said that we were going to wash stones...."
So, excuse me a minute while I fill up the old zinc washtub.

An hour later, our stones and critters are washed. It's my tradition in November to start a bowl of paperwhite bulbs, and the ritual begins with washing last year's stones to make sure all of the dead roots and detritus are removed for the next go-round. I now have two cafeteria trays full of stones of all sorts, some more muted which we found at the seaside, some bright and colorful tumbled rocks from the toy store or souvenir shops. A gnome and a small menagerie of plastic animals, and some shells, round out the collection. We will plant the bulbs this afternoon.

But back to my first line-- that quote of his. These days, I'm enjoying how Kiddo makes connections between things he likes, how he makes things happen. That a book full of text could, in his mind, still be deemed a comic book.... I think it's a reflection of how he's putting his "Wonder Nerd" comic together. The writing is in panels, like a comic, without any illustration. I could correct it and get in the way of his spontaneous joy of writing, or I can shut up and stay out of the way and let him figure it out. I'm going for the latter. As a parent, there is that temptation to correct, to say "well, that's not exactly right, but nice try"... and if solicited further, I will. But there's something to be said for kid-crafted solutions.

Two weeks ago at the Book Fair, he was really really really wanting a Captain Underpants book he already had in black-and-white paperback form. We'd picked it up for 99 cents at Goodwill, along with 6 others. A good use of seven dollars, if you will. I explained that the only differences were that the Book Fair one was hardback and yes, it was in color, and it was $10. We'd budgeted $20 for the Book Fair. "Do you really want to spend half your Book Fair money on something you already have?" He decided no and made some other selections. Two days later, I walked by his room and there he was, lying on his bed and coloring his own copy of that same book. He'd figured out how to get a color version for free, just a little elbow grease. (I should note, too, that he's usually pretty terrific about taking care of his books and treating library books well, so I'm not worried  he's going to think this is a universally-acceptable practice.)

It's these moments that remind me to do what we as parents sometimes should do: butt out. Finding balance in being instructional, informative, and leaving well-enough alone is a day-by-day, moment-to-moment challenge. So sometimes, I hear the mistake in his perception but wait for that second question from him, the one which wants to take his idea further, to understand it better. The question that asks for guidance or feedback or correction- that's when he does want my interpretation, my advice, my direction. A letter to Grandparents and I might take a moment to have him make a few corrections--he'll ask if he's spelled some words correctly. But for his own pleasure? I can see his phonetic kid writing and let it go, know that he's doing this for his own edification and that my pointing out errors unsolicited will do more harm than good. 

This is what I want to keep present in my mind-- how to let fun things be just 'fun' for him right now. Kids get so much guidance and constructive criticism at school; it's nearly constant that he's hearing what his teacher or classmates think of him or his work. We as parents pass judgment on what got done during the day and how well-- or not-- it was done. I think about how we, as parents, are trained by our culture to bombard our child with our evaluations... good job... you did that nicely.. oh, that wasn't quite right, try to make it tidy, some point, our kids just kind of need us to shut up and let them do what they need to do. One of my sisters says that when her boys do what they are supposed to be doing, she doesn't give them a lot of praise or evaluation, just a tacit "thank you" at the most (sometimes, no comment at all) and she moves on. If the task wasn't done in a satisfactory way, she prompts them with a simple "I think you forgot something" and lets them try to figure it out first on their own. 

I think she's on to something...

It's so hard to ignore the messages of our culture, that we should be making our kids feel good for everything they do. I think that's a double-edged sword, because either we are giving out nearly-empty praise or we are correcting some things so much so that we can get them to a 'praise-worthy' status, if you follow my meaning. There's got to be some middle ground here. I don't want to have to notice everything my son does correctly or make absolutely sure that he is doing everything to a tee. If it's a big deal to him, he'll come and ask me. If it's a big deal to me, I'll say something, but not everything can be, or should be, a big deal. If we don't want our kids to nitpick those around them, it's also important that we as adults figure out what to relax on, too. That's a lesson I think many of us learn over time. 

One of my mentors was speaking to me about a mutual friend in an admiring way: "She knows what is okay to let fail." This is an idea I still ponder. How do we decide to when to allow something to fail or be less than perfect? How do we decide "well, my cart can only hold so many apples, which ones do I choose and which ones am I okay with abandoning?" Another person might call it prioritizing, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think knowing when to let something fail, to let it go-- that maybe our investment in that area has become unhealthy, we've become unhealthy in trying to make something successful that is pretty much going to fail or disappoint if we stop with our interventions and allow it to take its more natural course. I see this with situations and people in my life: how do you let go and allow something to land where it's going to land, without continuing to want to produce the best possible outcomes? I am seeing this in different aspects of my life, where I can look at a situation and think "well, that part of the puzzle is failing, but over here? Something is going very right, and maybe this negates part of that other failure. Maybe enough good progress in this area means that the harder, failing part won't be as bad as it might otherwise." or  "Maybe the failure in this one area is for the best so that we can allocate our resources to the areas that are working well and make them more successful"

The trick is knowing, once again, what must succeed and why it must succeed. Common sense would dictate that ignoring areas where our kids are actually struggling in favor of focusing on their strengths is not wise, but once again, some things must be prioritized and some areas of life are more nuanced than others. I have learned in my lifetime that it was a good thing to let some things in my life fail, to pick myself up and put my efforts into things which were working and beneficial to my life and future. Sometimes, letting things fail is liberating... but only certain things, which is why I have a feeling that 'knowing what to let fail' is a lifelong challenge.

For here and now, though, I'm learning to just hang back at times, to enjoy what I can and try not to sweat the small stuff. And to just stay out of some of Kiddo's business,  unless he asks. Maybe that's the trick to being a good parent: knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We're only six, so I think it only gets more complicated from here on out... at least, for the next 15 or 20 years or so.


Narelle said…
What a lovely post.

And a lovely image of your son colouring-in his b&w book.

I'm in the process of writing a similar post for parents about being quiet and waiting - process over product.

When do we let things go? When do we provide "just enough" help? When do we jump in? Great questions.

Best Wishes

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