The notices had been coming home in my son’s folder for weeks. His school was having its first-ever Spelling Bee and the entire fourth grade — the top dogs at his elementary school — would participate. In preparation, word lists were sent home. E-mails were sent out. Flyers were distributed. My son’s teacher even showed Akeelah and the Bee one afternoon to get the kids excited.
Bruiser was looking forward to the Spelling Bee, but he didn’t seem all that interested in going over the word lists. And so, I let it go — which for me, was easier said than done.
For one thing, I’m a tiny bit competitive (heh), so my first instinct was to set aside time for him every day to practice — because even if he didn’t want to prepare for the Spelling Bee, he should want to prepare, right? Perhaps it was my job to instill that in him. For another, parenting in my neck of the woods is a blood sport. Moms and dads here spare no effort or expense to make sure their kids have every opportunity to succeed — which can be a good thing. But it also creates a lot of pressure to do the same for my children, simply so that they don’t get left behind. If I fell victim to this line of reasoning, then by not forcing my son to prepare, I’d ensure his humiliation by allowing him to participate in a Spelling Bee with kids who’d been practicing- thanks to their smarter, more caring parents- for weeks.
I have definitely fallen into this trap too many times to count over the years, but after 15 years of making parenting decisions, I hope I’ve learned a few things that I still have time to apply to the two kids in our family who aren’t yet grown. In this case, here’s what I know in my heart of hearts:
- My children are not an extension of me.
- No matter what I do, my kids will either be ambitious and driven to succeed — or they won’t.
In other words, I can’t ever expect my children to make the same choices I would have made, simply because I gave birth to them. They are independent beings who will grow up to make many decisions in ways I probably wouldn’t. And while as their parent, I can make opportunities available to them and try to help them find their passion and pay for classes and equipment and spend hours chauffeuring them everywhere they need to be, the effort and work that it takes to become great at something is– has to be– entirely up to them. Please don’t think I’m being preachy here; I struggle to remind myself of these things on an almost daily basis. It has been very, very hard to take a step back as a parent and let my kids fail when they don’t put in the work, especially when I know that I very easily could have changed the outcome for them.
But I’m trying. And with all this in mind, I encouraged my son to practice for the Spelling Bee, offered to help him whenever he wanted it, and then tried very hard to put the whole thing out of my mind… at least until he came home last week with surprising news.
“Mom,” he said excitedly. “We had the first round of the Spelling Bee today and I came in first place.”
“First in your class?” I said, surprised.
“First in two classes,” he said proudly.
“Wow!” I laughed. “That’s amazing!”
“We need to study my word list every night!” he said. “The final round is next week!” Suddenly, the kid had taken an interest in the Spelling Bee. I was glad I had stayed out of it.
Over the next few days, he spent time going over the words. The night before the Bee, we went over the hardest ones together. He was as ready as he’d ever be. When I sent him off to school the next day, I encouraged him to do his best and told him I was proud of his hard work. Since parents weren’t allowed to attend the Spelling Bee, I’d have to wait until afternoon to find out what happened.
Or at least, that’s what I thought. Later that morning, I got a call from his teacher.
“Your son,” she announced tremulously, “came in first place in the Spelling Bee!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Apparently, he couldn’t either — His teacher told me that when she gave him the microphone at the end of the Spelling Bee and asked him to say a few words to his fourth grade audience, all he could come out with was, “I never thought I’d be here!”
When Bruiser came home that afternoon, he was grinning ear to ear. He had won with the word ‘persuasion.’ Afterward, the fourth graders rushed to congratulate him and he reported that all the back slapping felt like being punched by a thousand different people at once. Eventually, his classmates held the well-wishers back. “Give him room!” they said roughly. “Give the winner some room!” It sounded like the kind of triumph every ten-year-old boy dreams of.
“I can’t believe you knew how to spell ‘persuasion,’ though,” I said. “It wasn’t even on the list! How did you figure it out?”
“I read Harry Potter, Mom,” he said, as if that were the most obvious explanation in the world.
I mean, DUH.
That evening, we took him out to eat at one of his favorite restaurants. There, the good luck streak continued when he won a stuffed lion in the claw machine, which he promptly named Persuasion. Once our dinner arrived, my husband made a toast. “To the winner of the Spelling Bee,” he said, holding up a glass.
“Dad,” Bruiser whispered, glancing at the tables around us, “Could you say that a little louder?” Dennis was more than happy to oblige.
“TO THE WINNER OF THE SPELLING BEE!” he roared as we toasted, so that everyone in our immediate vicinity would know that they were in the presence of greatness. Bruiser beamed with pride.
I tucked him in that night with Persuasion, whom he clutched to his chest. “This has been one of the best days of my life,” he murmured, eyes already shut tight. Within seconds, he was snoring. I watched him, filled with pride, and it was a far greater pride than it would have been if I had bribed or forced him to practice his words each day. The kid had triumphed completely on his own, and in that moment, the worries I’ve had over whether holding back and letting him figure things out on his own melted away.
That was last week. This week, he’ll join his baseball team in the playoffs. My husband has offered to practice with him every evening after work. Most nights, Bruiser has turned him down.
It’s going to be a hell of a game. 😳