My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”
Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.
Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.
Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.
What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?
And on and on. We finally ended up at I might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.
And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.
“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.
“I came in last.”
At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.
We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.
It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.
We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.
We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.
So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.
By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.
And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.
It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**
What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.
Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.
Plus, you know. Ice cream.
**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids, but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.