Son’s bow-out irks mother

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CAROLYN HAX

DEAR CAROLYN: My son is 12 and, for the most part, a pretty good kid. He isn’t a stand­out in aca­demics or sports and isn’t so­cially adept, but he has a good sense of hu­mor.

I, on the other hand, was raised to com­pete. I thrive on com­pe­ti­tions and was raised to take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to try my best. I was there­fore elated when he re­cently placed high enough to be in­cluded in the school spell­ing bee. I felt like this was one area where we can re­ally re­late to each other.

Well, to make a long story short, he was ner­vous and didn’t want to be there. He told me he wanted out of the bee, but I en­cour­aged him to take his best shot.

I was more than cha­grined when, on the first round, a prac­tice round re­ally, he mis­spelled the word on pur­pose and did a mock­ing bow in my di­rec­tion. I was sur­prised at the level of anger I felt.

I think un­der­neath every­thing I have been wait­ing for 12 years for him to be good at some­thing, and was look­ing for­ward to the mo­ment. I wouldn’t have cared if he got out on a dif­fi­cult word, I am not about win­ning, but I want him to try his best. And this was ob­vi­ously not his best.

Part of the anger might be re­ferred dis­ap­point­ment I feel to­ward his fa­ther, who is a chronic un­der­achiever. He in­her­ited his money and has a low drive to suc­ceed, as well as so­cial anx­i­ety that makes get­ting jobs dif­fi­cult. And, although I love him, I don’t want our kids to turn out like him in this re­gard. I feel like hav­ing a go- get­ter at­ti­tude will help them be more suc­cess­ful in life.

So, I am won­der­ing: How can I ap­proach this in­ci­dent, mock­ing bow and all, with­out over­re­act­ing to the point that I dam­age our re­la­tion­ship, or over­think­ing to the hy­per­bolic, “… thus he will never suc­ceed at any­thing”?

— Achiever Mom DEAR READER: At a ten­der 12 he has al­ready suc­ceeded at com­pletely unglu­ing his mom, so at least give him credit for that.

Se­ri­ously. He stud­ied your vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties — pa­tiently, qui­etly and pre­sum­ably for years — then un­leashed a drone strike to the heart of your com­pet­i­tive world­view. Which makes him not just “good at some­thing,” it makes him ex­cel­lent at calling you out for mak­ing his mo­ment all about you. Broadly ap­pli­ca­ble skill.

So how do you ap­proach this in­ci­dent? As you’d ac­knowl­edge any mas­ter­stroke: “Touche.”

Then, you apol­o­gize to him, for all these years of not re­ally see­ing him for who he is. Right? You’ve seen your­self and found him alien, you’ve seen your ego and found him dis­ap­point­ing, you’ve seen his dad and found him ter­ri­fy­ing, you’ve seen his aca­demic/ ath­letic superstar peers and found him unim­pres­sive.

He took a dive in the bee be­cause he sees this in you bet­ter than you do right now.

To be clear: Nor­mally it makes per­fect sense for par­ents to urge their kids out of their com­fort zones in age-ap­pro­pri­ate ways. They need to learn to face their fears, put risk in per­spec­tive, and emerge with the un­der­stand­ing that try­ing and fail­ing at some­thing dif­fi­cult can feel bet­ter than ac­ing some­thing easy.

But for that to work, par­ents can’t just preach the gospel of risk and push their kids to the cliff. They have to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment of sup­ported risk — ba­si­cally, where your child is matched with chal­lenges he has been equipped to han­dle, and where he knows he’s ac­cepted and loved in­de­pen­dent of the out­come of this or that chal­lenge or bee.

The en­vi­ron­ment you de­scribe in your let­ter isn’t that. In­stead the mes­sage be­tween your lines is, “For the love of pom-poms, give me some­thing to cheer about al­ready, you con­found­ing child.”

So he made the only safe choice he had, which was to fail com­fort­ably on his terms. Emo­tion­ally quite clever, in fact.

The an­swer here isn’t about one come-to-bee-sus con­ver­sa­tion, ei­ther. It’s about your re­think­ing your con­cep­tion of your na­ture and up­bring­ing as they come to bear on your son. You say twice in suc­ces­sion that you were “raised to” be com­pet­i­tive — but have you con­sid­ered that maybe you were com­pet­i­tive by na­ture, and your par­ents raised you ac­cord­ingly? And maybe his fa­ther’s wealth cor­re­lated with his un­der­achieve­ment, ver­sus caused it?

You’re clearly rais­ing your son to be com­pet­i­tive and it’s just as clearly not work­ing, which could make him Ex­hibit A for the ar­gu­ment that the par­ent­ing phi­los­o­phy needs to re­flect the kid, and not vice versa.

So try widen­ing your def­i­ni­tion of a per­son’s “best.” Try un­cou­pling your no­tion of work­ing hard from be­ing com­pet­i­tive. Try see­ing your son as great at be­ing him­self.

And, try en­cour­ag­ing hard work through his strengths, not yours. No­tice them, ap­pre­ci­ate them, change your at­ti­tude in rais­ing him to nur­ture and sup­port those strengths. I sus­pect the next bow won’t be ironic if you just love him for who he is.

Chat on­line with Carolyn at 11 a.m. Cen­tral time each Fri­day at wash­ing­ton­post.com. Write to Tell Me About It in care of The Wash­ing­ton Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. N.W., Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071; or email

Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group/NICK GAL­I­FI­ANAKIS

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