Tuesday, May 31, 2011

With Veil? Or: I'm Not My Alter Ego.

When asked to name my favorite or best anything, I never can. My appetites vary with the situation, so the song or dessert or vacation spot I adore at the moment isn't likely to top the list later on. I certainly can't pinpoint the best day of my life. But there is a day that I acted out of character and loved it. It's without a doubt my favorite version of myself, if there is such a thing. An alter ego that emerged because I was wearing a veil at a bar.

My bachelorette party was terrific. An evening of crazy fun with a great group of ladies. At the last stop of the evening, a bar in downtown San Jose, my bridesmaids presented me with a list of tasks I had to complete before the night was through. Nothing too outrageous, but definitely not the sort of thing I'd usually be up for. As talkative as I can be I'm not all that bold or confident with strangers, especially in the see-and-be-seen atmosphere of a bar. Suddenly I'm a insecure teen all over again, hoping to staying invisible and get through the night unscathed.

That night, though, something clicked. This was my bachelorette party. I had on a veil. People's opinions of me were irrelevant. That white piece of tulle was a license to behave however I wanted. I marched up to guys and demanded shots. I enlisted the bartender to help procure items on the list. No one refused me. Everyone smiled and seemed happy to help. I was completely empowered and loving it. My friends were shocked at how fearlessly I attacked the list. I was shocked myself. Within an hour they were scrambling to create another list with tougher challenges. No sweat for this party girl.

It was a revelation to see how naturally people responded to confidence. And it had been so easy. Despite my tendency to play the wallflower I'm not exactly shy. The night hadn't been just bravado. I felt as bold as I had acted. This is it, I thought. This is how I'm going to interact in the world. As if strangers were happy to talk to me. As if no one would think of refusing me. As if there was a veil on my head every day.

And of course, it never happened again.

I went right back to being the person I was before. Unsure in new situations. Reluctant to take charge. Worried about what people might think of me. We expect an eye-opening experience to forever change us. But soon enough we are back in our routine. The dreams of taking up painting again after seeing the masterpieces in the Louvre or promises to live each day fully after losing a friend too soon, these fall aside as the rhythms of our days settle back into what we've established. The current of our everyday lives has more pull than the soul-stirring moments we imagine will reshape who we are.

Still, we're not untouched by our experiences. My veiled alter ego wasn't invented. She emerged. And sure, she was lots of fun, but I'm not all that certain she's the person I want to be. That's probably why I didn't transform after that amazing night. But she's in there, and she can come out again. All I have to do is let her. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Practicing Failure

A twelve-year-old aspiring scientist watches his latest invention go awry, covering his host family in peanut butter & jelly. The boy hangs his head and mutters that he can't do anything right. Before he can continue the family enthusiastically congratulates him on his spectacular failure. Failures teach us much more than successes, they explain. If you never fail you'll never truly achieve great things. Inspired, the young boy is determined to improve rather than abandon his invention.

It's a scene from the animated film Meet the Robinsons, a movie with flying cars, talking robots and time travel. And yet the above scene is probably the most unrealistic part of the story. What parent celebrates failure? Even when we remain positive about our children's missteps we usually do so by encouraging them to keep reaching for success. "You'll get it right eventually," we tell them, or "Almost! Keep trying." When they finally succeed our enthusiastic praise drowns out this weak encouragement. Kids know the score. Failures are mistakes, and doing it right is what matters.

How we praise our kids makes a real difference in how they learn and act. Too much praise can distort a child's motivation. Instead of trying to complete a task or find an answer they angle for our approval. Often they aren't even sure what right is. They simply look to a parent or a teacher to tell them if they've succeeded. That becomes all that matters. Their understanding of what they are doing is secondary, or may not matter at all, as long as they manage to keep doing things right in our eyes. Failing in this case is not a learning opportunity but a tragedy to be avoided at all costs. Though they are capable of much more, they play it safe and stick to the easy, the known rather than take on a challenge.

So what's a parent to do? I've found plenty of resources that shed light on the problem (most notably How Children Fail by John Holt) but it's less clear what the solution is. I almost typed "what the right thing to do is" there. Here I am writing about celebrating failures and I end up seeking that perfect answer! Leading by example may be the best we can do. Parents are going to make some spectacular failures. If we can think of messing up as a good thing, a chance to improve, maybe our kids will too.

To start, I need to hover less as they develop basic skills so they can explore on their own. The coolest things my son did as a baby came from him alone, like strumming a guitar, twirling a bamboo pole like a ninja, and winning a dance contest he didn't know he was in. Had I been too eager to jump in I'd probably have derailed the activity and prevented the breakthrough. A baby doesn't need me to get excited when he strums the guitar for the first time. The sound is the reward, and he should get to revel in that for himself.

When I play with the kids I need to just enjoy it and lay off on the constant words of encouragement. If they start to show interest in something I should let the accomplishment - or failure - stand for itself. So maybe instead of being taught how to do everything, they'll invent their own ways of exploring the world.

And if I fail? That's me learning how to be a better parent.