Failures in our house generate more laughs than lessons.
Like the time my three daughters and I attempted to make cheese on the stovetop. Or when our youngest thought she could cut her own bangs. Or last Thanksgiving when I assumed it was safe to cool a pot of boiled brine in the snow directly outside our side door (I failed to cool the brine and succeeded only in giving my husband second degree burns on his foot).
But when a failure functions as a hard lesson, it’s decidedly less funny. Especially when the failure is your child’s first. And when you’re there to witness it. Because those moments are pure heartbreak. For both of you.
Last month, our introverted but drama-loving 11-year-old ran into the house from school, excited and breathless. “Mom! My drama club audition is on Saturday, October 3 at 11:30. Can you put it on the calendar?” She ran upstairs, monologue in hand, and I dutifully entered the time and day into my phone and set the alert: Saturday. October 3. 11:30 am. I recalled skimming the parent packet for drama club. One rule was clear: show up late for your audition and forfeit your chance of being in the club.
In the week before the audition, she reminded me daily: “Mom, don’t forget, my audition is this Saturday at 11:30.” I assured her I was on it and she practiced her monologue – a lot. Finally, Saturday came. We pulled up at school at 11:18 and I walked her inside. A teacher sat at the check-in.
“What’s your name, hon?” she asked. My daughter answered and the teacher flipped the pages of the sign-in sheet, scanning each signed line. “Hmmmm…,” she stopped. “Looks like you missed your audition. You were supposed to go at 11.”
The color drained from my daughter’s face. “But I signed up for 11:30,” she insisted, voice low and confused.
“Nope,” the teacher said, holding up the sign-up sheet and pointing to the last line on the page. “See? 11 to 11:15.” I read the line and recognized the handwriting. My daughter’s shoulders sank.
Wanting to come to my daughter’s defense, I asked if she could audition later. “Sorry, that’s it,” the teacher said, frowning and shaking her head. Nodding in understanding, my daughter whispered, “It’s fine.” She knew the rule and so did I.
We turned and walked down the long hallway toward the parking lot. She climbed into the car and slammed the door. “I thought I signed up for 11:30!” she sobbed. “I’m so stupid!” Her words stung.
There’s not a whole lot for parents to say in times like these. We can’t say, “It’s okay,” because it’s so clearly not. We can’t make a bad guy out of the messenger. We can’t scold – our children are already beating themselves up. But most of all, we can’t say, “Just let it go,” because frankly, they shouldn’t.
As hard as it was to watch my daughter – a kind, quiet, all-around good girl – so angry with herself, I knew that distracting her too soon would be counterproductive to the opportunity her failure provided. So I let her cry in her room for a while. I told her making a mistake didn’t make her stupid. It made her human. And then, to reach out, I told her a story.
I told her about my interview with the Associated Press, just months after graduating with my degree in journalism. I drove two hours to the interview, took the writing test and triple checked it for errors. The editor reviewed my test and frowned. “Your writing is good, but you had a typo. You misspelled ‘occurred’,” he said, before adding, “in your lead.” I was humiliated. My error was a complete oversight, but there was no way around it. I had been careless. I cried most of the drive back home, knowing that I’d blown my one chance to write for the AP.
“It feels like you blew it and it might for a while,” I told her. “But this won’t be your last chance to act ever.”
Turns out, she didn’t have to wait too long for the next one. Three hours after the missed audition, the director called to say that he’d love for her to come back that afternoon, if she was willing.
Of course, I knew she would be, but was I? Would giving her the opportunity to right a wrong so soon diminish the value of what she’d learned? I struggled for a moment. The thing was, the director wasn’t asking me. He was asking her.
So she auditioned.
And as we drove away from school – this time, under considerably better circumstances – I wondered out loud about the start date of an upcoming volleyball clinic. “Um, Mom? Can you double check when it starts?” she asked. “I don’t want to miss anything ever again.”
I chuckled. But this time, I wasn’t laughing at a failure. I laughed at success.
Jennifer Kuhel is a writer who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
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