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The Long Car Ride Home

Written by: Natalie Fuertes

A few days ago, a Facebook memory popped up on my feed. It was a video of my daughter’s floor routine from March 11, 2018. We had driven three hours to Albany and had stayed overnight at a hotel for my daughter’s competition. She ended up having her worst meet of the season. She fell off beam during her routine and just barely placed in only one event. I closely watched her demeanor during awards and I could see that she was crying. Rather than show how sad I felt for her, I gave her a look from across the room, motioning for her to wipe her tears and cheer for her teammates who were being called up for medals.

As a parent, it’s only natural to want your kids to succeed*. It feels good to post that picture on Facebook and Instagram for all of your family and friends to see. You know the one - your kid is beaming with multiple medals around their neck or with that gigantic trophy in their hand and you write something cute about being a #proudmama. Those are the “easy” parenting moments. The “social media” parenting moments. You know exactly what to say and exactly how to celebrate. But what do you do when that isn’t the case? When there are no medals and no trophies. When the smiles are replaced with tears. When there are no witty captions and cute hashtags.

Gabby Douglas falls off the beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Beam final on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games

Every child deals with failure differently - some will cry, some will become angry, others will suddenly be withdrawn and quiet. Those moments of failure are difficult for kids to get through and they are difficult for parents to manage. I have witnessed overly invested parents who scream and berate their kids for not “giving their all”. And I have also seen parents who, admittedly with the best of intentions, try to cheer up their kids by sweeping the loss under the rug.

The hard truth is that there is no “perfect” thing to say or do. Persevering, learning from mistakes made, and moving forward from failure are learned skills that, ironically, require failures. As parents, we instinctively want to shield our children from all harm, physical and emotional. It is, quite literally, our jobs to keep them safe and happy. But it is important that our children learn that making mistakes and falling down are a natural part of life. And it is vital that they learn, as Mary Pickford is credited with saying,

“...for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

To help you prepare for the “inevitable long car ride home”, here are 5 tips that I have found to be helpful with my own children. Feel free to tweak and adapt as needed.

Great job!” “You did your best, honey!” Let’s be real - your child is not happy with themselves right now. They know they didn’t perform as they were expecting to and, as much as you may want to cheer them up, this isn’t the time to be overly happy. For comparison, think about when you’re having a crummy day at work. Maybe it’s just me, but when people are overly cheerful, it just makes me even more upset. It’s okay to not be happy all the time. Let them feel their feelings in the moment.

Let them decide what happens when you first get in the car. If they want to listen to music, turn on their favorite song. If they seem a bit withdrawn, offer them some headphones so that they can listen to music on their phone or iPod. In addition, everything is worse when you’re tired and hangry. Ask them if they want to go out to get food or if they’d rather eat at home. Don’t ask them a ton of questions and force them to make a bunch of decisions. If they want to eat out, just drive straight to their favorite restaurant. If they want to eat at home, make them something they enjoy and is quick and easy to prepare. (Breakfast for dinner is always a hit at our house.)

Believe it or not, their coaches prep them for these moments, so leave the critiques to the coaches. They have a process for reviewing meets in a way that’s factual and non-emotional. If you attempt this, your athlete will likely become defensive and end up thinking that you’re disappointed in them.

Here’s the hard part though - don’t offer any solutions. Listen, remain neutral, and let them speak. Channel your inner Switzerland. Right now, they are not looking for you to solve their problems, they just need to vent. You can always circle back with them later and give them advice when they aren’t feeling so emotional. Because I can guarantee you that they won’t be receptive to any suggestions or solutions right now. It’ll be met with an eye roll and a “You just don’t understand!” (This funny YouTube video helps illustrate this point further.)

As a follow-up to #4, there comes a point where “venting” inevitably turns into “whining” and it’s ok to firmly tell them enough is enough. Failure is a part of life and as much as you want to save them from ever feeling hurt, they need to learn how to deal with it. And sometimes that means feeling like crap. But then you dust yourself off, get back up, and keep pushing forward.


*The current news cycle covering “Operation Varsity Blues” is evidence of some parents taking this desire way too far.

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