10 year-old-me was a feminist. (Current-age-me still is). I decided it was completely sexist that baseball was dominated by boys. Softball was not an acceptable alternative. So I asked my mom to sign me up for baseball that spring.
It was tough. I did not know any of the other players, but they all seemed to know each other. Plus, there was only one other girl on the team. So, the social scene was rough, but I wanted to prove that girls could do what boys do. I was not as good as all of the players, but I was better than some of them (including the other girl) and was put on third base. But as the season went on, I became more and more demoralized during practice and games because of the uncomfortable social situation. For instance, I never developed any friendships and some of the boys would ignore my raised hand for slapping after they scored.
One day I slid into third base for the first time ever. I was so proud to have made it without being thrown out. But my internal celebration was short lived as I felt cleats kicking into me from behind as another player tried to slide into third base too. He then yelled at me for not continuing on to home plate. I walked to the sidelines trying to figure out if I had misjudged where the ball was (but the third baseman had the ball when I got there…) and if I should have kept running.
By the end of the season, I did not want to go to games anymore. I stopped paying attention to what was going on and was put in the outfield. I specifically remember one instance when our team scored and I did not get up to cheer. My coach came over to me and said, “You’re on this team too.” I felt like such a failure. I failed at making friends. I failed at proving that baseball was for girls too. I failed at sportsmanship, a skill in which I had always prided myself. I failed to keep trying.
Since that day, I have considered my baseball career one of my biggest failures, which is a pretty good sign about the rest of my life. Until yesterday.
Yesterday as I continued to read The Gift of Failure, I came across this passage that so closely mirrored my experience, I was shocked:
Melissa Atkins Wardy… told me the story of her daughter’s first, failure-ridden day of baseball practice. “Amelia showed up for her first day of baseball last night and discovered she is one of two girls on a team of boys she doesn’t know. She was very intimidated, but she got on her helmet, chose a bat, and went into the batting cage. We didn’t realize “coach pitch” meant “pitching machine.” We thought it meant a parent lobbing balls across the plate for the kids. Still, Amelia summoned enough courage to get in the cage and take a pitch. She only took one pitch before the tears started, but sometimes that is what courage looks like. Somedays, courage looks a lot like failure, except it is the exact opposite.” (Lahey, 2015, 122-123).
Those few words changed my entire outlook on the whole season. I went to every practice and every game, not knowing anyone, not feeling welcome, not having played baseball on a real team ever before. That was courageous.
As Lahey explained, “Those are moments of courage and growth, and we need to teach our kids to be proud of them” (2015, 123).
Instead of understanding that season as a complete failure on my part, I re-framed my outlook and saw how brave I am and how much I had learned, even if I had not consciously realized it at the time. I learned that some kids are mean and that I probably do not want to be friends with them. I learned that it is much better to be inclusive of new people because I knew how it felt to be excluded. I learned that adults (i.e., my coach) do not always say the right things.
I am sure my parents thought those things and I honestly cannot remember whether or not they said them to me, but either way, I did not get the message at the time. (In defense of Mom and Dad, they certainly got the message across in other situations).
When you see your child struggling, help her correctly frame the situation. Figure out if she is truly failing at something she can do or if she is having a difficult time with something that is truly hard. Tell her how brave she is and why you think that way. Give her an example of a similar experience you had (or tell my experience as your own). By framing it as a positive experience, she will feel better, your relationship will strengthen, and she will be more likely to learn from her risk-taking in the future.
Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. HarperCollins: New York.