The big blue eyes of my daughter filled with tears when I walked into her room to kiss her goodnight. She quickly looked down at her teal comforter to avoid my worried face.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” rolled quickly off my tongue, but I already knew the answer.
Her little fourth grade fingers held the page of a book, and she looked exhausted.
I sighed as I found a spot on the side of her bed that was not already occupied by a stuffed animal. I placed my hand on her leg and watched her fight off the tears, her pursed lips like a dam holding back the mighty Mississippi.
She was trying to finish The Penderwicks, a classic novel she started reading a few weeks back. She and her two older sisters were participating in a school program that required reading 25-plus books in about six months and then compete in a trivia-like contest against other schools on their factual knowledge about the material. The local children’s librarian selected the list, which was a mix of literary classics, non-fiction material, and contemporary novels. I happened to be one of the “coaches” for the program.
My daughter eagerly devoured books over the summer, but when reading something she didn’t enjoy, it took weeks for her to complete it. Once her Fall activities started up, it became even more difficult to get her to finish and do the required work to be a member of the “team.” It was starting to become a fight we had every day.
A few days before, she broke down in hysterics over something ridiculous, like asking her to take a shower after soccer practice. Thirty minutes later when I told her it was time to head upstairs to bed so she could read, she out-and-out lost it.
I did not recognize this girl sitting in front of me. This girl is moody, combative and harsh, not the happy-go-lucky kid that usually is a joy to parent.
Originally, I chalked it up to a pre-pubescent outbreak, but the pattern of behavior didn’t seem to match up to raging hormones. Her outbursts were linked to one thing that I did not want to admit.
A few days before her epic meltdown, in a moment of haste when reminding her that she needed to finish a book to stay on track with the program, I yelled: “Listen, if you’re not going to finish the books, you can’t participate. I’m not going to fight with you, so maybe you should just quit.”
My daughter shouted back through waves of tears: “I don’t want to quit, I just don’t want to read right now!”
It was not my finest parenting moment, and I wanted to take my words back as soon as they shot out of my mouth. In our house, you finished what you started. It was a rule. I mean, every parenting article you read nowadays talks about how we are raising a generation who does not understand responsibility, is coddled by parents and cannot handle rejection. How could I let my daughter quit something she loved to do?
I made a deal with myself. She didn’t have to do it next year, but she had to finish what she started. I did not want to raise a quitter.
I feel that children who persevere through challenging tasks, those who push through set backs, knuckle down and power through, learn a valuable life skill. It is a very competitive world, and figuring out how to hang in there is an important lesson. “Just Keep Swimming” is a family motto.
I spent the better part of the next several days trying to create blocks of time to read that were earlier in the day or reading aloud with her to make it more of a fun, bonding activity. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. The Penderwicks for her turned into what the Kardashians are to me: a family in your face that just won’t go away. There were more tears and the tension between us grew.
When I walked into her bedroom that night and saw her tired, dejected face, I knew what I needed to do.
“Honey,” I said, taking the book out of her hands. “You don’t have to finish this book, or any others on the list. You are officially released from the team.”
“But, Mom,” she mumbled, finally meeting my gaze. “I don’t want to be a quitter. I don’t want to be the only one in our house who quit.”
Hearing her say the words I was thinking felt like a bee sting to my heart. She obviously was carrying this burden around for quite some time. In her face I recognized what I already knew: she was doing this for me, and it was beating her down. Her fear of disappointing me was the only thing keeping her tied to this thing she was growing to hate, and that’s when I knew I was the problem, not her.
“You are not a quitter,” I said defiantly. “You have stuck with soccer for five years, sometimes playing entire games for your team. You finish every craft you ever start, no matter how long it takes. And you hate to turn off MineCraft before you finish exploding the house you just built,” I joked as I pushed a soft brown hair off her face.
Relief poured through my body as I finally saw the smile that lights up an entire room. “But most importantly, you usually finish books, and I know how much you love to read. You do not have to do this program, but I still want you to read 25 books by December, and I know you are already half way there. And, you’ll have to come and support your sisters when they compete. Deal?”
“Deal!” she responded happily.
I hugged and kissed her goodnight as usual, and the tears in the room were now mine. I watched as she reached for the tattered bunny she slept with and settle into her pillow with a smile on her face.
I always find it difficult to walk the parenting tightrope. I do not want to be a helicopter parent, yet I want to push my children to reach their potential. I want to avoid acting like Tiger Wood’s dad, but I do not want my daughters’ biggest fear to be disappointing me. I want to see my kids for who they are in this moment, now what I want them to become or achieve.
It seems so silly and trivial to even be contemplating. It is a simple school program, for Pete’s sake; but I do believe these moments, these small intersections of choice, can shape little minds. The difficulty comes in choosing when to be firm, and when to let things go.
So much of my daughter is beautiful, kind and right. And I know she is neither a coward nor a quitter. She loves to try new things and has an abundance of courage.
What it boiled down to, however, was I did not want to take the joy out of something she loved. I did not want to add any more stress to her busy little life. And I think she gave it her best shot. This was just not a match.
I still believe perseverance often makes the critical difference between whether kids succeed or fail. But I also believe kindness, empathy and compassion for what you child is going through can go a long way too. I forgot that we all could use a little more of that.
The next day after school my daughter excitedly showed me two books she checked out of the library.
“All my friends said this book is hilarious, so I couldn’t wait to get it,” she told me. “And guess what? I finished The Penderwicks today in read-to-self time.”
“Really?” I questioned, surprised that she even brought it to school with her.
“Yeah, I already read most of it anyway, so I figured I might as well finish it,” she shouted over her shoulder as she happily raced out the sliding glass door to play with her friends.
I guess quitting can even turn out okay sometimes.