Dear Carolyn: My son is 12 and, for the most part, a pretty good kid. He isn’t a standout in academics or sports and isn’t socially adept, but he has a good sense of humor.
I, on the other hand, was raised to compete. I thrive on competitions and was raised to take every opportunity to try my best. I was therefore elated when he recently placed high enough to be included in the school spelling bee. I felt like this was one area where we can really relate to each other.
Well, to make a long story short, he was nervous and didn’t want to be there. He told me he wanted out of the bee, but I encouraged him to take his best shot.
I was more than chagrined when on the first round, a practice round really, he misspelled the word on purpose and did a mocking bow in my direction. I was surprised at the level of anger I felt.
I think underneath everything I have been waiting for 12 years for him to be good at something, and was looking forward to the moment. I wouldn’t have cared if he got out on a difficult word, I am not about winning, but I want him to try his best. And this was obviously not his best.
Part of the anger might be referred disappointment I feel toward his father, who is a chronic underachiever. He inherited his money and has a low drive to succeed, as well as social anxiety that makes getting jobs difficult. And, although I love him, I don’t want our kids to turn out like him in this regard. I feel like having a go-getter attitude will help them be more successful in life.
So, I am wondering: How can I approach this incident, mocking bow and all, without overreacting to the point that I damage our relationship, or overthinking to the hyperbolic, “ … thus he will never succeed at anything”?
At a tender 12 he has already succeeded at completely ungluing his mom, so at least give him credit for that.
Seriously. He studied your vulnerabilities – patiently, quietly and presumably for years – then unleashed a drone strike to the heart of your competitive worldview. Which makes him not just “good at something,” it makes him excellent at calling you out for making his moment all about you. Broadly applicable skill.
So how do you approach this incident? As you’d acknowledge any masterstroke: “Touche.”
Then, you apologize to him, for all these years of not really seeing him for who he is. Right? You’ve seen yourself and found him alien, you’ve seen your ego and found him disappointing, you’ve seen his dad and found him terrifying, you’ve seen his academic/athletic superstar peers and found him unimpressive.
He took a dive in the bee because he sees this in you better than you do right now.
To be clear: Normally it makes perfect sense for parents to urge their kids out of their comfort zones, in age-appropriate ways of course. They need to learn to face their fears, put risk in perspective, and emerge with the understanding that trying and failing at something difficult can feel better than acing something easy.
But for that to work, parents can’t just preach the gospel of risk and push their kids to the cliff. They have to create an environment of supported risk – basically, where your child is matched with challenges he has been equipped to handle, and where he knows he’s accepted and loved independent of the outcome of this or that challenge or bee.
The environment you describe in your letter isn’t that. Instead the message between your lines is, “For the love of pom-poms, give me something to cheer about already, you confounding child.”
So he made the only safe choice he had, which was to fail comfortably on his terms. Emotionally quite clever, in fact.
The answer here isn’t about one come-to-bee-sus conversation, either. It’s about your rethinking your entire conception of your nature and upbringing as they come to bear on your son. You say twice in succession that you were “raised to” be competitive – but have you considered that maybe you were competitive by nature, and your parents raised you accordingly? And maybe his father’s wealth correlated with his underachievement, versus caused it?
You’re clearly raising your son to be competitive and it’s just as clearly not working, which could make him Exhibit A for the argument that the parenting philosophy needs to reflect the kid, and not vice versa.
So try it. Try widening your definition of a person’s “best.” Try uncoupling your notion of working hard from being competitive. Try seeing your son as grea at being himself.
And, try encouraging hard work through his strengths, not yours. Notice them, appreciate them, change your attitude in raising him to nurture and support those strengths. I suspect the next bow won’t be ironic if you just love him for who he is.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.