On work & disappointment

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Both Becca (10th grade) and Parker (7th grade) decided to run cross country at school this year. Becca had run last year and knew what to expect, but this is Parker's maiden voyage. In preparation, I signed the kids up for a summer 'running camp' supervised by our local high school cross country coach. The camp meets every weekday morning in the summer (okay, they get the week of July 4th off). Every other weekday? Be there. 6:30 - 8 AM. I'm going to tell you that the combination of summery late nights and early morning running can be brutal.

But if you want to be a distance runner you've got to put in the miles. Right? 

Becca, in her estimable experience, pretty much gets this, although there was a fair amount of negotiating in the early hours of our summer mornings. "How about if I run by myself this afternoon?" 


How about if I stay home today and go tomorrow? 

Still no. 

This is not to say I didn't allow them the occasional day off. I'm human. I understand enough can be enough, but balancing commitment with mercy is extremely difficult. Mostly I just went with my gut.

By the end of the summer I was pretty pleased with running camp. The kids were in excellent shape -- well prepared for their Fall sport.  

Then I get an e-mail from Jordan (in France). She was giggling over an e-mail Parker had sent her. I can't find the exact e-mail at the moment, but it went something like this: "Dear Jordan. I hate this running camp with all of my heart. This was a huge mistake. I will never ever ever ever do this again. This has been a bust." 

The e-mail was half funny and half tragic. I wanted him to feel positive about all of the hard work he'd put in, and apparently that wasn't his vibe. His vibe was venom and spite. Hmmmmmm.  Not good.

But here's the good part. At his first cross country meet last week, Parker did pretty darn well. He came in 27th out of about 150 7th grade boys. Even better? He felt totally great about his performance. He thought it was fun and was anxious to improve his time. Being the know-it-all that I am, I certainly took the opportunity to point out to him that that he had reaped the rewards of his summer of work. He agreed! Score! What a lesson -- hard work pays off. Cue the white hat . . . Ta da!!!!

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But here's the rub: Becca has seen this any number of times. She and her teammates are at every early morning practice. They work hard. They put in the miles. And there is ALWAYS someone on the team who barely works out, skips the early mornings, and who also breezes through the meets -- placing in the top three (out of hundreds).

That's where things get complicated and sticky.  How can we teach our kids that hard work and commitment are important values? What happens when hard work does NOT equal success? What do we tell them when their very best just isn't good enough?

My approach has been to try to have a positive conversation about their effort -- what they've learned from working towards a goal. This includes pointing out how practicing discipline and honoring their commitments will help them in their future.  Interestingly, my kids are usually so invested that they have eagerly jumped on the 'what-did-I-get-out-of-this' bandwagon. Working hard isn't just about the outcome after all, it's also about what they learn along the way.

Secondly, I try to allow them the space to feel frustrated. As much as I want their lives to be continually rosy, I also feel it's important for them to learn how to deal with disappointment and imperfect situations. There does seem to be some process here: feeling hurt or frustrated, figuring out what they learned or what they need to improve on, and making a plan to move forward (and sometimes that includes renewed dedication).

I think there is also something to be said for avoiding blaming others for poor performances, whether that includes criticizing a coach or other players. AND I  want my kids to learn to be happy for their teammates' successes. That's one of the things I love about cross country -- so often those kids who come in first will stand by the finish line and cheer the other runners through those painful last strides. That's what I'm talking about -- competition and kindness all rolled together.

What about you? How do you help your kids deal with disappointment? 

Articles on 'when your kid doesn't make the team': found here and here.