Like most fathers, I don’t like to see my girls cry, or really in any kind of pain. But the truth is, when I avoid those moments or rush to solve their problems for them, I rob them of precious opportunities to grow. Case in point, yesterday afternoon after school the girls are at the table completing their homework. My two oldest attend a public charter school, and my eldest is in third grade which means that for the first time she’s experiencing all the rigors of preparation for high stakes testing.
Now, in our home we don’t place much if any emphasis on test scores and grades. Neither of our parents did for us and we figure we turned out fine. There’s a bit of oversimplification with our stories, but essentially we found our way not by comparing ourselves to others, but by challenging ourselves to become our best. We do acknowledge though that for us, doing well in school opened doors and provided us with options, options that led to college, graduate school, and careers that have been fulfilling and lucrative. Yet, unlike many middle class parents who seem to put a ton of pressure on their kids to perform or achieve a certain standard of living as them, the only pressure we consistently put on the girls is to be leaders, young women of character and integrity who make good choices.
The problem is, when you’re raising an achiever (which our oldest most certainly is), it doesn’t matter how much or how little you pressure them. They’re going to put more pressure on themselves. I know the feeling from personal experience, yet sometimes I tend to forget. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when yesterday Riles just simply broke down sobbing after completing one of her test prep activities where she scored a 40%. (Mind you, this is an online testing platform that gauges her knowledge of math content through the end of third grade, much of which she has yet to be taught). She’s used to getting high marks and when she doesn’t, she tries over and over again until she gets it. But we’ve been here before with her, watched her succumb to being overwhelmed with pressure.
My wife came and knocked on my office door to get me where I was (surprise) getting a bit stressed about trying to solve a problem of my own. I think you should talk to Riley, she’s bent over her work crying and can’t seem to be consoled, is what my wife said. It makes sense that I’d be the one to talk to her since we both share the same affliction, except with me, I don’t cry about it and truthfully I’m just learning as an adult to talk through my emotions. But as a father raising four daughters, the best gift that I’ve given myself (and them) has been the growth of learning how to process my own emotions so that I can sit with them as they process theirs.
So, I came to the kitchen, literally picked her up in my arms and carried her into my office while she sat in my lap sobbing. When it seemed as if she was done I asked her, tell me how you’re feeling? That’s new for me. My initial instinct is to say, this isn’t a big deal, why are you crying about it? She started sharing how she’s upset because she got a 40% on her test prep exercise and she feels like she doesn’t like math because even though she tries her best, she doesn’t seem to get it. Ouch. On so many levels in that moment I wanted to make the moment less about helping her process her emotions through this experience, and more about solving the problem. I became angry at the school for assigning such difficult work, angry at our hyper testing society, thought of pulling her out of this school and placing her in a school where she’ll be less exposed to the dangers of high stakes testing. But none of those things were most important in that moment so I had to focus.
What she needed was for me to listen as she talked through how she was feeling. And what I learned as I listened was that she had the skills to actually healthily process what she was experiencing. I asked follow up questions like, why do you feel that way about math in particular? I also asked her to tell me about how she feels about subjects that she likes. After processing for a bit, I shared how I was experiencing a similar frustration myself with trying to solve a problem that I’m not that good at solving. She seemed to get the analogy. We both agreed that taking a deep breath and asking for help are ok. We also agreed that we don’t have to be the best at everything (a revolutionary idea for both of us).
This I’m sure will continue to be a work in progress, but what I’m confident of is that the more we talk it out, the better equipped she and I will become at processing our emotions in a healthy way so that we don’t become unnecessarily stunted in our growth. I sometimes joke that I rarely worry about my middle two daughters because they’re both pretty vocal about expressing their emotions. Oh, and before we wrapped up our little office session, I took her face in my hands and reminded her that she’s more than her accomplishments. For an achiever, that’s a revolutionary idea, one that I hope keeps her grounded.
I don’t know what feels worse for a parent, seeing danger coming and not being able to stop it or being blindsided by unexpected risk. Either way, we still can’t control the outcome for our child, we just have to hope that we’ve prepared them well for the challenges they inevitably confront. Yesterday put this theme front and center for me in a few powerful ways. I realized that perhaps it’s a good thing that my daughters cry now when they experience pain or failure, because in the process of working through their emotions, it’ll actually make them more resilient and emotionally mature for the next inevitable obstacle they face.