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Legacy of Tears

True story. When I was in second grade, my mom thought I should be tested for our school system’s accelerated academic program. My teacher, Ms. Harmon, did not. She thought I was bright enough, but that I got too upset when I did not understand something perfectly right away. (Like borrowing in subtraction. Thirty-three years after the fact, I can still remember the fear and tears when I didn’t get it right the first day.) She thought I needed time to mature and develop a thicker skin and more patience. I think my mom was pretty miffed at the time, and I know she is/was in hindsight, especially given my future academic performance.

I, on the other hand, would like to reach back across the decades and kiss Ms. Harmon. I think she recognized a toxic blend of perfectionism and anxiety when she saw it and decided that tougher academics could wait a year or more for the sake of an 8-year-old’s mental well being. I never totally got over this destructive tendency. Until very recently, I avoided things I didn’t think I’d be good at and damn near killed myself to be the best at the things for which I had natural talent. Only since I have hit 40 have I managed to reverse this trend. Not caring if I’m bad at something or look ridiculous has been the single most liberating feeling I’ve ever had, and it has opened new doors to me.

My new challenge is to see if I can get Simon to this point in a shorter period of time. Like me, he is ruthless with himself when he makes a mistake or gets reprimanded. The punishment I or anyone else metes out to him pales compared to what he unleashes on himself, and seeing this destructive tendency manifest in my son is a terrible, terrible sight to behold. It pains me, all the more so because I know he inherited it from me.

Last Thursday, in science, Simon had to give up a dollar. His teacher monitors and tracks behavior using a class-dollar system. Every child begins every day with four dollars. You can give up one and still stay on green, which means your behavior for the day is good. If you give up two, you go on yellow, which is a warning status. If you give up three or four dollars, you go on red and the teacher and parent discuss the behavior and how to best correct it.

Until last week, Simon had never once given up a dollar. A quick look at the class behavior chart showed that he and one other girl were far, far ahead of everyone else in class. We’re talking Secretariat margins here. But last Thursday, something happened. I can’t get the whole story from Simon because he breaks down in messy tears when I ask about it. In fact, I only know about it at all because I overheard his friend James C. tease him about it on the playground. All I know is that he got confused in science, didn’t raise his hand to ask for help with something, was possibly also upset by another child’s crying, and had to give up a dollar. I’m guessing he didn’t do part of his notebook work. However it happened, Mr. Sowder used a serious voice with him, Simon forfeited the dollar, and now the world has come to an end. He has cried every morning before school, he tells me he hates science, and he is clearly terrified of something like this happening again. I’m pretty sure my kindergartener is engaging in catastrophic thinking.

I wrote his teacher, and Mr. Sowder assured me he’d have a chat with Simon about THE INCIDENT. Alas, Simon was so unnerved by Mr. Sowder wanting to talk about it, that he couldn’t tell me what Mr. Sowder actually said. Sigh. Based on prior experience, I can tell you that by the time Simon regains his equilibrium and can discuss this calmly, no one will remember the details any longer! This is the exact same reason I have deeply regretted it the very few times I have yelled at Simon. He falls apart so completely that the teachable moment is lost.

We saw the same behavior when he had McEnroe-esque meltdowns on the tennis court this summer. And we saw it this weekend when he made a mistake in his drumming practice. I was able to talk him down from that particular ledge by telling the (true) story of my trying a new, advanced move in pilates and literally launching myself off the equipment. It was a spectacular fall, and instead of being embarrassed, I thought it was hilarious and decided that I had a new goal to strive for. Matt tells me that when Simon made a mistake in his drum lesson, he nearly cried but regained his composure, carried on, and had a fun time of it. Later Simon told Matt that it was picturing Mommy falling off the pilates equipment that helped him. I’ve also talked myself blue about the importance of mistakes, the instructive value of failure, and how you can get better at almost everything if you give yourself enough time.

I’ve also told him about my B+ grade average in conduct, to assure him that well liked and well behaved children are not perfect. I was graded down for chatting too much, of course. I even stepped out of bounds to tell him that his smart, successful, and well liked cousin Ben has been on yellow before. (A lot, actually, but Simon didn’t need to know that part.)

Maybe some of this will fade in a week or so. It will surely get somewhat better. I will continue to haul out every non-perfectionist talking point I can. But my gut tells me that Simon has to come to this conclusion on his own. Please, please, please, can he get there sooner than I did? For both our sakes?



2 Responses to “Legacy of Tears”

  1. bethnbobinnc says:

    Simon is lucky to have you as a parent. Many would not recognize the perfectionism as a potential “problem”. Hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing. He’ll mature and, hopefully, gain some perspective.

  2. Amanda says:

    Learning how to fail is really, really important. I remember teaching undergrads, whom little was required in school, and having them facing failing in college for the first time, and they couldn’t handle it. We all fail. And as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out over and over, an interesting failure can be much more important than an expected success.

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