My daughter is in 1st grade and she is having her first experience with behavior modification. Every student has a clip and inappropriate behavior may necessitate moving the clip to a certain color.
When I ask my daughter about her day she shares a few details and always ends with "I didn't have to move my clip!" At the beginning of the year I found myself saying things like, great job! Good for you! Supportive things that any mother would say.
But now it is the middle of the year and I am detecting something different in her voice. It sounds a little strained, a little flat, possibly with a tinge of worry when she says, "I didn't have to move my clip today…"
Today I answer her differently. When she tells me that she didn't have to move her clip, I say, what do you think would happen if you had to move your clip? She looks at me with anxious surprise - as if I just uncovered a deep dark secret. "I don't know what would happen", she says with wide eyes.
I see an opportunity, but I am hesitant. How do I explain to my 1st grader that mistakes help us become who we are meant to be?
I think back to when I was 16, sitting next to my dad in a courtroom. My "crimes" were nothing of great consequence (trespassing in a park after it closed, out past curfew), but they were poor choices nevertheless.
I remember feeling awful about being in that courtroom. I was down on myself, thinking how I had disappointed anyone who ever knew me. Wondering who I was and how I got there. These are vital questions for a teenager. This was an important moment in my life.
I remember looking up at my dad, still in his suit because he had to leave work early. I remember seeing a slight smile on his face when he looked at me. He didn't think this was funny, nor was he trying to make me feel better. I just think he understood the significance of the moment. He knew this was a rite of passage - maybe not for every 16 year old, but for me.
He knew that mistakes can be gifts if we view them in present time, without the baggage of fear or worry about what everybody else thinks. That smile gave me hope. It was like he already knew that everything would be just fine. The day in the courtroom didn't need to define who I was; instead, it could help me define who I wanted to be. Mistakes are the teachers that allow us to make informed choices.
I respond to my daughter by saying, you will learn. She looks at me with confusion and says, "Learn what?" I tell her that she will learn what it feels like to make a mistake in school and then she can decide whether or not she wants to do it again.
"What if I make the same mistake again?" You will continue to learn, I say.
This is an important connection with my daughter because I know she is uncomfortable with mistakes. I hope to give her some room to breathe - to let her know that choices are a part of life and they can't all be good ones.
My younger daughters may fall somewhere else on the behavior spectrum - I may need to offer balance from the other direction. But this daughter needs to know that there are things to learn outside of the box. I don't want her to look at rules and structure as fear inducing or stifling. I would rather she view them as helpful guides along her journey.
Her life choices have just begun and because I am her parent, her choices will affect me. Some will make me angry, some will make me cry, and some will make me extremely proud.
But no matter how I feel, I hope I can conjure up that slight smile. Not because I think her choices are funny, but because I know she is in the process of finding herself. To let her know that I understand the importance of life experience and I trust that her misjudgments will help her find her real path.
The smile that says don't worry, I have faith in you. I know who you are.
Cathy Adams is a certified parenting coach, yoga instructor and mother to three girls.
See more of Cathy's stories here.