Matty and the bee (or, a lesson on the importance of letting kids fail)

In the fourth grade I clinched the title of spelling bee champion of Ms. Meara’s reading group. I received a hand-delivered McDonald’s Happy Meal for my efforts, which for a 10 year-old is roughly equivalent to winning the Powerball jackpot. I can’t remember what word I won with, but I remember winning. I remember glory. I remember a Garfield Happy Meal toy (which I generously bequeathed to my Garfield-obsessed best friend). In fact, I can still visualize the spelling bee scene to this day: what the room looked like, where I was seated at the table, and even the book the bee was based around, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Obviously, it made a big impact.

Cut to last year, when my son Matty brought home a flier indicating that his after-school program was hosting a spelling bee. Like me, Matty reads non-stop and is a great speller. He couldn’t wait to show off what he knew. And I couldn’t wait for him to follow in his Old Lady’s footsteps.

When the night of the bee arrived, Matty was super-excited. He started off strong, easily making it through the preliminary round and moving on to the finals. At some point, all of the other kids in the finals had made errors, and Matty was the next kid up. If he got this question right, the host told the crowd, he would be crowned the winner.

Matty was poised to win it. The host gave him a word I was confident he knew how to spell. Victory was so near, I could almost taste it (and it was flavored, of course, like Chicken McNuggets). But then, Matty started to spell the word off the top of his head, without first writing out the word with a pencil and paper. Without this visual aid, and no doubt awash in nerves, he spelled the word wrong.

A little girl we didn’t know ended up winning. Her dad responded by cheering and fist-pumping the air—a little much, it struck me, given that we were at an after-school program spelling bee (surely he felt this was her first step towards Harvard). My son gracefully left the stage but started sobbing uncontrollably when we got into the car. We took a quick ice cream run, but even cookies and cream with sprinkles couldn’t lift his spirits.

Seeing my son like that absolutely broke my heart. I can’t describe the feeling. It was some combination of butterflies in my stomach and tightness in my chest. There is something uniquely torturous about seeing the people you love the most in the world fail. Especially when you know how hard they worked to get there. I could have cared less about my son winning the bee, but witnessing his disappointment was truly heartbreaking.

So you can imagine my dismay when my son brought home the spelling bee flier again this year, eagerly telling me and my husband how excited he was to participate again. I humored my son but privately told my husband I didn’t think we should let Matty do it. Remember how devastated he was?, I reminded my husband. Remember the crying? The heartbreak? But my husband pointed out that Matty himself didn’t seem to remember how devastated he was. Nor did he appear to have any visible scars from the experience. He unreservedly wanted to do it again.

I thought about it for a while, and slowly came to the realization that the person who was truly scarred from the bee wasn’t Matty—it was me. It was my stomach that was tied in knots, my mind that was consumed with worries, me who did not want to go through this heartbreak again. Ultimately, if I didn’t let Matty participate, it would be for selfish reasons. I would be saying “no” in order to spare myself the anguish that comes from acutely empathizing with a disappointed loved one.

I decided to let him do it. It’s this Friday night. And I have to admit, I’m feeling those butterflies in my stomach even as I write this.

But I know I made the right call. I have to let my kids fail, much as it pains me to watch it happen. Cliché as it may sound, I do truly believe that most failure experiences ultimately lead to some form of personal growth. While I acutely remember the glory of my spelling bee championship, I have an equally vivid memory of the time I screwed up the flute solo in front of my entire elementary school at the spring concert. That (extremely humiliating) mistake humbled me, teaching me that practice does not always make perfect, and that effort does not necessarily guarantee success. This was a crucial lesson for me at that time, as I was a really confident kid and honestly benefited from getting knocked down a few pegs.

So on Friday night, I’ll be in a school gym audience, trying to hide my trepidation behind a warm and encouraging smile. I’ll keep reminding myself that, win or lose, my son will learn a valuable lesson, and make a memory that will probably stay with him even after he has children of his own.

Whatever happens, I’ll be cheering him on, with a bowl of ice cream (or perhaps a Happy Meal?) at the ready.

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. DrCBTMom.com combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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