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What I’ve Learned From Watching My Kid Struggle

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When I saw the first two kids who would be competing against my son at a recent martial arts tournament, I felt sick to my stomach. They were the same size and age as my boy, but they each had steely eyes and kicked and punched with fierce precision. My son had his back to me as he watched, but I knew the look on his face. It was the same slack-jawed pallor on my own face.

By the time it was my son’s turn before the judges, I could tell the fire in his belly had gone out. His form, while technically nearly perfect, was lackluster. As the judges raised their scorecards he was fighting back tears. So was I.

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My son and I are both going through a season where things are difficult — nothing dire, but in many ways, we are both struggling. He is getting close to the black belt training in his martial arts class and the coaches are much stricter. Last month, he was turned down the opportunity to test for his next level. Then there was the tournament I described earlier. And then, he brought home an F in Algebra (and I’m not talking about the Asian kind).

I felt like I was getting an F as a mother. Add that to already feeling like a failure in so many other ways. I am nowhere near my goal of publishing a book. I worry that I’ll never have a “real” job again. I’m a half-assed school volunteer. Permission slips stay in their folders, unsigned, way past their deadlines. My family has been eating pizza and Panda Express, because I’m too busy to make a home-cooked dinner. I finally fit into my “skinny” jeans, only to gain the pounds back (nothing to do with all that pizza, I’m sure). Some days, I feel like throwing in the towel, and curling up in bed with a bag of salt and vinegar chips.

But I can’t.

I worry that sometimes we do our best, and we still don’t succeed.

I sat on my son’s bed the evening after he was told he couldn’t test for his next belt. He was furious, demanding that we hold back his younger brother, who had gotten the green light to advance. I searched for words, asking him if he felt that he had given his full effort to practicing, telling him that we all have times when we don’t achieve something we want, and that we need to look deep inside and ask ourselves if we are doing the best we can to work toward it. Sometimes, we have to ask for help. Like, take advantage of the free math tutoring after school!

I feel sort of sick to my stomach, because I worry that I am not a good role model, that I am not doing the best I can to work toward the things I want most in life. That I get distracted, maybe not by video games but by things that feel more pressing that sidetrack me from working toward my own dreams. And then I have another nagging feeling that makes me even more sick: I worry that sometimes we do our best, and we still don’t succeed.

Yet, time and again, I sit on the edge of my son’s bed, giving him these pep talks. He may not feel like it, but in some ways he is lucky to experience these setbacks at a tender age, when the consequences aren’t so serious and when his psyche is malleable. In some ways, I had an easy childhood — earning As in school and doing well at most of my activities. When I ran into problems in college and as a young adult, I had no experience of overcoming adversity to draw upon. In the scheme of things, my son’s struggles and failures are still small potatoes. I know people whose teens are struggling with big challenges: staying in school, staying out of jail, that kind of thing.

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My son has pulled up his grades and is pressing onward in martial arts. I don’t know if he’ll earn straight As or become a black belt. And while it can be painful at times, the bottom line is that it’s not so much the grade or the achievement that matters, I just hope he can grow into a more resilient person through the process. And maybe I can, too.

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