I came home from work the other day to find my 13-year-old son shut in his room, crying. One could say this was just typical teen hormonal angst. And oftentimes, it is that. But this time, it was different. This time it was heartbreak.
My husband had warned me that I’d come home to find my son distraught, so I was prepared. Kind of. Because nothing can really prepare you when you see the heartbreak written on your child’s face and in their tear-filled words.
The cause for his heartbreak?
He didn’t make the middle school basketball team.
While this might seem trivial to some, I can assure you that to him, this felt like the end of his (middle school) world.
I wished I could make things different. I wished I could take away his pain. I wished I had a magic wand that could make everything better. But I didn’t. So what did we do instead?
Well, we went out to dinner to celebrate. That’s right, celebrate.
“Hey, buddy,” I said giving him a squeeze.
“I’m super proud of you,” I said.
“Why? I suck,” he responded.
“You don’t ‘suck,’ and I am proud of you,” I said firmly. “Now let’s go out to celebrate.”
“There’s nothing to celebrate,” he sniffled. “I didn’t make it. ‘Cuz I suck.”
“There’s lots to celebrate,” I reminded him. “You made the effort. You put yourself out there. You tried. Sure, you didn’t make the team and I understand that you feel really crappy. But you showed up and put yourself out there, and that is definitely worth celebrating.”
He remained skeptical.
“Look,” I said. “I hate to break it to you, but there’s going to be lots of disappointment in your life. You won’t make the team. You won’t get the grade you think you deserve. You won’t get into the college you want to go to or get the job you want. It stinks and it feels awful. It can make you want to not try out for the team or apply for the job because you don’t want to risk the shitty feeling that comes from not making it. And that’s why you trying out should be celebrated. Congratulations!”
“Psshhh,” he muttered and walked away.
Still, we went out to dinner that night at our favorite Chinese restaurant. We ordered a ton of food and let the kids drink bottles of sugary Ramune soda. My husband and I told stories about all the times we had tried and didn’t make it — like all the teams we didn’t make, the colleges we didn’t get into, the jobs we didn’t get. And we celebrated the hell out of my son not making the middle school basketball team.
We will keep celebrating these things with our kids. We’ll celebrate when they try out for the travel baseball team and don’t make it. When they apply for a job and don’t get an interview. When they work really hard on a school project and bring home a solid B. Because they put themselves out there, they took a risk, and that effort – not the outcome – is what should be celebrated more than anything.
As much as I wish it weren’t true, life is filled with disappointments and failures. It’s important that our kids learn how to deal with those disappointments and failures early and often, when the stakes are relatively low, so that they are better equipped to handle disappointments and failures when the stakes are high. So I’ll keep encouraging my kids to try out, to sign up, to just go for it, even if I know they will likely feel the pain of failure at the end of it.
That night, when my son went to bed, he was still hurting and wounded. I hugged him and reminded him how proud of him I am.
“You know,” I said. “You’re gonna fall sometimes. Everyone does. What matters is not just whether, but how you get back up.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, you can either get back up and decide you’re done with basketball. You can get back up but be negative and bitter. Or you can get back up, dust yourself off, remind yourself of the things you’re good at and work at the things that need improvement, and move forward.”
“I know,” he muttered.
And then two weeks later, he tried out for another team. No, he didn’t make that team either, but we celebrated all the same.