Anxiety · Life · Motherhood · Parenting

Risk and Growth

Daughter’s nervous hands

A version of this post can be found on the Kindermusik blog site.

As a parent, finding the balance between protecting your child and allowing for safe risks is a constant struggle. If we don’t allow risks, we logically know that it will not end well for our little ones, yet, all we want to do is scoop them up and snoodle them and keep them safe from bullies, kidnappers and even scarier criminals, mean teachers, friends who only play with them when no one else is around, those playground moms who judge your child, etc. You know what I mean! Growing up can be a nightmare, and it’s not just the other kids to worry about.

I have a perfect (for me) family trio of Husband, Daughter, and me. I chose to work and mom at the same time and continued my career as an elementary school teacher while Daughter was in day care. Then came the day when she was finally old enough to be a part of my school community. Oddly, I was more nervous with her right down the hall than before when she was miles away from me. She wasn’t in the cozy confines of the sweet little 6 to 1 ratio preschool room anymore, and I knew what was out there. Now please understand, the school in which I taught was pretty dang fabulous with really amazing teachers and kids, a supportive administration, small class size, the works. Still, real school’s scary and hard and different. There are new challenges and opportunities that just made me nervous for my little peanut. She did (and does) a great job navigating all of it with minimal help from home. All was going fine… And then she wanted to be in the talent show.

Risking It All at the Talent Show

Every year at our amazing school we had a talent show mid-winter. It was a long and cold winter in Colorado and testing season was upon us, so we all needed a great break. I ran the show for many years and, though it was exhausting and at times quite aggravating, I adored it. One year I realized I would be at a reading conference during the show’s scheduled date, so I passed the leadership off to another. After ten years it was time anyway.  When Daughter was in first grade, she decided that it was time for her to be in the show alongside the dancers and singers and comedians. She would sing, she told me, all alone. It was the height of the phenomenon of Disney’s “Frozen” and Daughter was, as were most other little ones that year, obsessed. “I’m going to sing ‘Let it Go’ with the music only- no words on the CD,” she said. “I’m going to do it all by myself, I’m going to do a dance, and it’s going to be great.” My heart sank into my feet. I felt nauseated. How terrible, you’re thinking. Support her! Ok, ok. I hear you. But let me explain.

Daughter is terrific at a lot of things. Quite a lot of them, in fact. She can read like you wouldn’t believe. She is ridiculously smart when it comes to most school subjects, especially science, because she remembers everything. She can act like very few children I’ve ever seen, and I have been leading children in theater clubs my entire teaching career. But like most people, she has her things she is not so good at. Topping the list are her fine and gross motor skills (read: dancing) and singing. Oh, does she want to be a singer! Those days, as now, she sang all the time; showers, baths, car, walking, riding a bike, on the swings, you name it this kid was singing. (There’s a great story about her kindergarten teacher needing to talk to us about the constant singing in the bathroom, actually, but that’s for another day.) Even with all that practice, the poor child could not, as the saying goes, carry a tune in a bucket. Cool abilities and cool mom teacher aside, Daughter was not doing great in the friend and peer likability department, either. She’s unique, some even say weird, and gets picked on. Some days it bothers her, some days less so, and it seems to be an undercurrent to all that happens to her. That’s why my belly hurt. All I could see was Daughter up on that stage, singing and dancing her heart out, only to be made fun of by her peers when she finished. Would they even clap for her? What if they openly laugh at her? What if this ruins the stage for her entirely, when I know she has some serious acting chops? I didn’t know what to do.

That Pesky Risk Thing Again (with Science!)

I think a lot of parents have these types of situations with their children. Many people call their own parents, siblings, fellow parent friends, and ask for advice. I did a lot of those things, but I also did what I often do when confronted with a conundrum; I researched. I was directed to several amazing resources, and let me sum up what they are saying for you: allowing your child an opportunity to take safe, calculated risks is important for them as a developing human. Allowing (again, safe and calculated) risks helps your child to be a better decision-making adult. One of my favorite nuggets of research-based wisdom is from clinical psychologists Dr. Susan Davis and Dr. Nancy Eppler-Wolff. “Risk is inevitable, and without learning the skills of good risk-taking, our children will be more apt to take impulsive and poor risks.” (Read the full article here.)  They’re going to take risks anyway, so why not give them a safe environment and controlled setting? I always told the parents of my elementary students that making mistakes in my classroom was a perfect time because the consequences were small. This was really no different. Or was it? Were the consequences really small?  So I continued with researching adding the idea of not only risk, but failure or mistake. Yet another nugget which summed up what I was reading fell into my lap. “It is worth reminding ourselves of two truths about how children grow up to be confident, resilient, responsible people. First, they have to be given the chance to learn from their mistakes. Second, the best classroom for learning about everyday life is indisputably the real world, beyond home and school.” (That’s from an article  by Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-averse Society.) I can’t think of a single parent who would not want their child to be confident, resilient, or responsible.

And How Did it Go?
So I decided to let her go for it. Daughter was to be on that stage alone and singing and dancing to the smash hit “Let it Go” without even my face in the audience. I had to be at a reading conference if you recall, and I was a hundred miles away. Luckily, when you’ve been teaching at a small school in a small town, you get great friends among your fellow staff members, and a wonderful teacher gave Daughter a pep talk beforehand, FaceTime-d me in for the performance, and even bought her a flower for afterwards. Even more luckily, Husband was able to be there having walked in the door from his demanding job the act before Daughter was to go on stage. All was in place. Take your marks, ready, set, go! 

She sang her little heart out. She was super nervous and forgot to do her dance, which is probably for the best anyway. She was singing all her words right on time and didn’t sound half bad. Then my teacher friend panned the audience. Every kid there was swaying and had a smile on his or her face. Every kid was supporting her. Every. Single. One. When she finished, they applauded like Idina Menzel herself had been there. It was spectacular. She had been so confident with only a touch of stage fright, and she took so much more from that performance than can be measured or written or examined here. She’s not afraid to take a reasonable risk. She’s not afraid to do something her heart tells her is right, and she has a love of music and sharing it with others that can never be extinguished.

She’s a little older now and has started taking piano lessons. Her first class homework was to write a song with the few notes she has learned. She’s up to the task. She will write and perform that song for her teacher with confidence and love. She will sing every day to anyone who will listen. She’s practicing to be Willy Wonka in a musical, too. When I asked her what gave her the confidence to audition for such a big part, she answered, “Mom, if I can sing in front of the whole school all by myself, what can’t I do?” That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? What can’t she do?

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