When I was 10, I didn’t make the cheerleading squad. I had never wanted anything more in my young life. I’d practiced for months, learned every cheer, spent days in gymnastics perfecting my round-off, back handspring and back tuck. And I still found myself reading the names posted on the side of the building again and again, searching for mine. It wasn’t there.
When I think of that day, I can still feel the pain. I cried half the night. My mom cried along with me. It was fifth grade devastation in its finest form. So when my daughter got rejected from the school play this past fall via an overfull lottery system, I had a moment where it all came back.
And apparently I was not alone.
The school’s Facebook page lit up with angry parents. 250 kids had tried for 150 spots. “This isn’t what the school play is about,” parents said. It was midday when this news broke so I had all afternoon to think about how to tell my daughter. I did a lot of fretting. Maybe I even cried a little. I am a pretty typical modern parent, I suppose. I don’t want my child to experience pain and will do just about anything to avoid it.
But then she came home. I told her. She looked at me and said: “Ugh. Bummer.” Then: “What’s for dinner?”
That was it. The thing I’d worried about all day was no big deal at all.
A few weeks later, we learned she got into a big group theatre piece with a tiny role. Sure, it wasn’t one of the individual skits, but she was happy. I was happy, too. And, all the angry parents were placated.
But it got me thinking about rejection. I am only 29 years older than my daughter and yet my experience with rejection is so totally different from hers. She will never know the devastation of trying her best at something and still failing. That just doesn’t happen in our "everyone gets a trophy" society.
But is that a good thing?
There is a comfort in the fact that my child won’t experience that pain. But rejection is an important part of life. I am in my mid-30’s and just the other day I was rejected over a piece of writing I’d worked hard on. I was upset. I cried. But I also rallied. By the next day, I knew it was probably the wrong path for me and that rejection made me look deeper. It made me question things. It strengthened my resolve to finish my novel and find an agent since that is the real kind of writing I want to be doing. I doubled down and worked harder.
So what happens when kids don’t experience that?
After the cheerleading debacle, I nursed my wounds, gathered my strength and tried out for the dance squad instead. And, as it turned out, that was a way better fit for me. If we’d all made the team, I’d never have learned that.
A random lottery might seem like the fair way to do these things, because they're "so young!" but is it? What has my daughter learned from this except for the idea that life is actually a series of random rejections that have nothing to do with talent or pushing us toward our better selves. I would rather have seen old-fashioned try-outs with spots going to the students who showed the most musical and acting proclivity. Call me a '70s mom.
The truth all we grown-ups know is this: We can’t protect them always. They will lose friends. They will get dumped. They won’t get into their college of choice. They will get C’s on papers they worked on for weeks. If life were meant to be a series of constant successes, it would be that. But we all know it’s not.
So how well are we preparing our children by insulating them constantly from that reality?
We can insulate our kids from it at two. We can continue to do so at five and six. Maybe we can even do it until they are 18, holding on by our nails, giving every child a blue ribbon regardless of whether they earned it. But at a certain point, they — and we — will fall. Wouldn’t we rather that happen when they can fall into our arms? Wouldn’t we rather it be a time when we can rock them and hold them and tell them it will be all right? Because here’s the thing: We know it will. It always is. The sun comes up tomorrow and new ideas form. New talents emerge. Sometimes we have to learn that the hard way.
Pain is awful. No one wants to experience it. But a life without pain is a life without growth. If you didn’t fall off your bike rounding that corner it could be because you were too scared to try the corner in the first place. Where’s the fun in that? So falling, failing, losing, and not getting picked first are all the stuff that builds us up. That scarred knee is going to take the next fall a whole lot better, right? Wanting my kids to fall doesn’t make me a bad mom.
It makes me the kind of mom who knows our medicine cabinet holds plenty of band-aids.
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