On Failing for Our Kids

risk-control Every third Sunday at Tiny Church, we have guest musicians come in and play for the service. Our accompanist plays the hymns and leads the congregational singing, but the guest musicians play music at the beginning and end of the service, plus two pieces in the middle.

This past Sunday, my fourth grader was scheduled to be the guest musician. She chose four pieces she knew well, and for a week prior, she practiced them to flawlessness.

And on Sunday... well, who can say how it happened. She'd been to three birthday parties that weekend and as an introvert was peopled out, perhaps. She was tired. She didn't have a good breakfast. I don't know. But she got an attack of stage fright the likes of which I've never seen in her. No pep talk could snap her out of it.

She is old enough to be aware of what I write here, so the details are between her and those of us in Tiny Church. Let me just say that she made it through the first piece beautifully.

Robert took her out afterward so she could compose herself, and I went right into the call to worship. It's one of the most uncomfortable moments of ministry I've ever had. I wanted to be with her, but I had a job to do.

Since then she's talked to her parents, her grandparents, and her piano teacher about what happened. We've laughed about the fact that no matter where people start, every last one of us concludes with the same expression: Get back on the horse.

Myself, I was flummoxed about the whole thing. What brought this on? Then I remembered playing The Baker's Wife in a college production of Into the Woods. It was a fantastic experience, but very intense---several nights of performances, but with the same classload and homework as always. My worst performance of the entire run was when my dad was in the audience. My Dad was never one of those hyper-critical, impossible to please types. Still, I so wanted to do a good job that night. But my timing was off, my voice sounded terrible, and realizing this just made me sieze up even further.

Remember when I said intense? One of the RAs found me outside, crying uncontrollably between scenes.


So what's a perfectionist raising a perfectionist to do?

I told her later that I wished I'd asked the congregation for a show of hands: how many of you have experienced stage fright? Or nervousness at doing something new? And let her see the sea of hands. Surely everyone would raise a hand, except people who a) are lying or b) have never challenged themselves.

It's probably just as well that I didn't do that, because it would've put her on the spot. Plus, I don't think kids get it. They don't get that adults had (and have) fears and phobias. Adults must seem so... competent to kids. Sure, kids see us lose our cool; they see us spill the cereal and scrape the car door against the garage. But mainly, they see us succeed. Hold down a job. Set a goal and meet it. Be where we're supposed to be, more or less on time.

I read a lot of stuff about parenting, and of the many critiques of helicopter parenting---and there are many, and rightfully so---the most significant is that it doesn't serve kids well. Children don't learn resilience when we're always smoothing things over for them. But I also wonder whether resilience gets built when children witness adults taking risks. I don't mean stupid risks (no cooking meth in your basement). But I don't mean cute risks either (taking a ballroom dancing class). I mean real, authentic, bowel-quivering risk.

Maybe just letting them in on the risks we do take would help. Every night at dinner, we do a modified examen with our kids---we all share our most and least grateful moments (framed as most/least favorite when they were younger). Often my least grateful moment is something in the news, or concern for someone who's sick. It's less often that I share about the rejection letter I received, or the withering comment that came when I stuck my neck out about something. But maybe those moments are important for children to witness.

Of course, parents should provide a sense of stability and security for their kids. We don't want to come off as capricious. But the world our children are inheriting is a world of rapid change. The roles and rules are not spelled out. People who can conquer their own fear of the unknown, take risks, and shrug off disappointment will be much better off in life.

On Sunday I said to Caroline, "You were really scared, you tried something hard, and you didn't die." Let me be clear that I do not think she failed. But maybe children need to see us fail. Or more to the point, maybe they need to see us fail and not die.