What I Want You to Know About Failing

We were lying down for bed one evening this week when you told me about some drama you were having at school with your best friend, N.. The class must line up to go back into the classroom after recess, you informed me. Some days you outran N., and he was not happy that you were ahead of him in line. You told me that sometimes you let him take your place in front of you, but that sometimes you wanted to be ahead of him even if it meant your friend was jealous.

I had forgotten how troubling the worries of a second grader could be.

I tried to think of what to tell you. I wanted to see the problem from your perspective and give you some advice that might help instead of just being something grownups always say to kids, like, “How about you take turns?” Or, “Have you told N. that you want to be in front sometimes?”

I thought about how skillfully my own dad dispensed fatherly wisdom. One time, in fact, I told you about how much I missed my dad because of how he always seemed to know the right thing to say to make me feel better. I half expected you to tell me that I did that for you, but instead you sighed (in a way quite reminiscent of my dad, I might add) and said, “Then, I wish he was here.”

On this night, I was determined to come up with my own insight. I thought for a while and then inspiration hit.

“It takes a few seconds for everyone to get in from recess when you line up, right?”

“Huh?” you replied.

“Well, when you line up, the first person goes in, and then the next person, and then the next. Right?”


“So the last person in line is actually outside a little longer than everyone else, right?”

“I guess so.”

“So that means when you are behind someone in line, you get a little longer recess than they do.” It seemed like you were tracking what I was saying.

“So,” I went on, “if you end up behind N. in line, don’t worry about it. It just means you get a little longer of a recess than him.”

You thought about it for a few seconds. It was dark, but I swear I could feel you start to smile. Like I had figured out the solution you were hoping for.

My dad would be so proud, I thought to myself as I waited for you to fall asleep. Just crushing this whole dad business.

It might sound like I was a little too self-congratulatory for just one little piece of advice, but you have to take the wins when you get them as a parent. Because parenting, when it comes right down to it, is just a never-ending series of failures. Any parent who isn’t aware that he or she is constantly failing is probably failing harder than most.

For instance, I remember when you were an adventurous one-year-old wanting to climb out of every crib or pack-n-play we tried to put you in. Your mom and I ended up converting your crib to a bed earlier than we thought we would because we were terrified you might fall and hit your head some night while we were both in a sleepy stupor. In this configuration, you were unbounded, but we figured this was better than waking up some morning, surprisingly well-rested, only to find you sprawled out on the floor unconscious from a nighttime jailbreak gone wrong.

Without bars holding you back, though, the nighttime routine only grew more difficult. I think we knew, conceptually at least, that sleep training is supposed to be about training the child, but we were also aware that in our case, it was you who had trained us. We had been taught to stay in your room until you were sound asleep and to exit with all the stealth of a jewel thief or there would be hell to pay.

In short, we were total failures when it came to bedtime.

After one particularly rough night, I spoke to a colleague about the difficulties we were having. He shared that he had reversed the knob on his child’s bedroom door and had started locking his small child in her room. He had video monitors with microphone capabilities, so he knew if she was in need of assistance. He said the system had worked; their child knew she had to stay in her own room until the morning and had stopped trying to leave her room in the night. He and his wife were getting full nights of sleep.

Well, I thought as I listened to this, maybe I’ll just learn to live with no sleep. That wouldn’t be so bad. If “success” meant forcing my toddler to do hard time in custody every night, I was fine with failing.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who told me about a traumatic experience he had recently had with his daughter. She suffered a dislocated shoulder, which had been a recurring medical issue for her, and he needed to reset it. In her fear of the pain, she kept jerking away and making it impossible for him to do what needed to be done.

In a moment of desperation and frustration and terror, he yelled at her to be still. She was stunned to have her otherwise-gentle father take such a tone. She stared at him with wide eyes full of surprise and fear and, in that moment, she stopped fighting him. He took advantage of her stillness and was able to reset the shoulder, but he wondered what emotional damage had been done by raising an angry voice at her, especially when her fear and pain were so understandable.

I told my friend that, in moments like that, there are no perfect solutions. Just a bunch of imperfect options. The best we can do as parents is try to choose the least imperfect one. In my opinion, I told him, his response was the best thing he could do in that moment. More than that, it seemed to me heroic, because it focused her on something else and helped save her from further pain. I could tell he appreciated my words. Though, if he’s anything like me, I doubt he has fully forgiven himself.

I should know about choosing the least imperfect option. I have had plenty of those moments with you.

In the weeks after your mom died, for instance, you started having some serious temper tantrums. Like my friend’s daughter, your pain and hurt were understandable and heartbreaking. But what could I do in those situations to help you? I wanted to let you rage, within reason, if that’s what you needed to do to get some of the hurt out. But the tantrums would go on and on, and sometimes they would spill over to the point of hurting others: me, Ozzy, your grandparents.

What I learned was that your anger would fade if it was overwhelmed and replaced by another emotion. If I was lucky, I could make you laugh, and that would help you snap out of it. Usually, though, my jokes were the last thing you wanted to hear, and only served to make things worse.

So, I started finding ways to get you from anger to sadness. If you threatened to throw a pillow at Ozzy, I would tell you that we might need to take him back to his sellers, and that would set you crying. If you hit me, I might tell you that it had hurt and I would start to cry, shedding tears that were both real and fake at the same time.

Even now, I don’t know whether these were good choices or bad ones. Just the least bad ones I could come up with in the moment.

I remember another time back when you were three, when your mom was undergoing chemotherapy. I decided to take you to a local amusement park the Saturday after one of her infusions, figuring it would be a good opportunity to get you out of the house and do something fun together, while giving her a chance to rest.

We spent the afternoon going on rides, playing carnival games, looking at animals, eating junk food. Early on, I told you that you could get a toy and you found the one you wanted right away. On our way out of the park, though, you decided you wanted something different. I said no, trying to set a boundary so you wouldn’t think you were entitled to anything you wanted (ICEEs, cotton candy, superhero capes, and caricature sketch notwithstanding).

As we left the park, you began to have a meltdown, one of the biggest I had seen to that point. When I tried to carry you, you jerked away and kicked out. When I set you down, you tried to walk back to the park, or sat in place along the crowded walkway, growing redder in the face and more upset with every passing second. Eventually, I wrapped you up in a bearhug and walked you back to the car as you continued to lash out at me. I put my head down and absorbed the blows, knowing that some of the people we passed along the walkway probably thought I was kidnapping this poor child, while others knew exactly what I was going through.

Finally, we made it back to the car. You fell asleep within a minute of being buckled into your car seat. I checked myself in the visor mirror for injuries and tried to settle my nerves as best as I could, hoping that I hadn’t scarred you for life.

Not a perfect way to end an otherwise great day, but less of a failure than it could have been. What I told myself, anyway.

I pick you up from school the day after we talked about N.’s jealousy of your place in the end-of-recess line. I ask you how the day went. You tell me it was a good day. You seem happy.

Nonchalantly, I ask how things went at recess. You tell me my advice didn’t work.

“Why not?” I ask. “What happened?”

You say that you tried to explain my logic to N., but he was just holding his hands over his ears and didn’t want to hear it.

“So, did you let N. go in front of you?” I ask.

“No,” you say. “I was in front of him, but I was trying to tell him he would get a longer recess. I guess he just didn’t want to hear it.”

“Ah,” I say, realizing how my advice got twisted in your mind. I had given you a way to placate N. as you got your preferred place in line, and it hadn’t worked at all. So I hadn’t quite crushed my dad wisdom as much as I thought.

Oh well, just another small parenting failure. Add it to the list.

3 Comments on “What I Want You to Know About Failing

  1. Oh Caleb! This is the “perfect” piece on parenting. You are a remarkable Dad, believe this please. I remember asking my parents “how did you do it?” (Parent?) They looked at one another and said: “We have no idea, we did it one step at at time and sometimes it worked.” Perfect parents are like that. Thanks for sharing. God bless! (Ditto your mom’s comment!)

    Liked by 2 people

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