The last week of September found me arguing before a jury and exhorting them to acquit my client of multiple charges. They didn’t. I lost.
The ramifications of this loss were huge: multiple natural life sentences consecutive to decades in prison. I had grown very close to my client and his family, so this loss stung. I cried bitter tears of recriminations and self-doubt, and, despite 15 years of being a criminal defense attorney with a caseload limited to just capital murder, I wondered if I was cut out for the job. My friends assured me that I “busted my ass for that kid”; even my client tried to console me.
Two weeks later my children would compete in their first gymnastics meet of the year. I couldn’t make the meet as I was flying home from a trip. So, I waited for them at home. I heard the door open and one of my 10-year-old twins came running to me crying so, so hard. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “I didn’t get many medals.” So, I asked her why that made her cry and she answered, “I’m disappointed in myself.”
At this point, a parent usually utilizes one of these options: the “you tried your best” route, the “you’ll get em next time” route, the “winning isn’t everything” route or “practice harder and practice makes perfect”.
These, however, ring hollow to someone suffering from defeat. We all want to alleviate our child’s distress in moments like this, but I think we do them a disservice when we reach for platitudes.
Instead, I proceeded to tell my daughter “I lost my trial. I lost and I cried so hard. I thought I was the world’s worst lawyer and maybe I should quit and do something else.” I let her know that it was okay to cry, to be disappointed, to be mad at herself, and to want to give up. I was honest with her and vulnerable. I told her, “yep. You didn’t do well in this meet. The opportunity to do better in this one is gone. But you have another meet coming up and I have another trial coming up. What do you think we should do now?”
My point was to get her to take an active participation in recovering from defeat, to acknowledge it, seize control of it and her response.
My reality and those of my girls is that as black, Jewish females we will suffer MANY defeats for many reasons outside of our control. I must conscientiously pour self-awareness into them tempered with not making excuses. I must let them know the world will treat them unfairly — in this case, intra-club politics may have played a part — but that is no excuse for poor performance, poor preparation, or poor effort. In this world, they still must be twice as good to get the same result and even then, it may not matter — but you go above and beyond anyway.
As parents of children of any stripe, we strive to give our children the equipment necessary to survive and thrive in the world. We do that by building character, and by character, I mean the ability to self-regulate themselves with compassion. We must allow our children to feel the burns and stings of life without trying to fix it for them or suffocate them with compassion. Sharing our vulnerabilities allows them to see that even parents aren’t perfect. What I am most proud of with my daughter is that she was disappointed in herself, she didn’t express that she felt she disappointed me. Her looking inward means she is being governed by her own measures of success, not mine. My job was to turn her inward disappointment to outward compassion for herself.
I want to instill the love of competition in my daughters versus the love of winning. Competition in my household are personal objectives, not subjective, of goal setting and if the goals are met, then it is won. If my girls score a 9.3 in floor exercises, then I would ask them what score they would like to achieve at the next meet. They may say, 9.6 all the while knowing the winning score from the past meet was 9.50. They KNOW what it takes for them to get 9.6 which is a reasonable, concrete, and achievable goal than to merely say, “I want to win or I want to medal”; and in the next meet if they meet their scoring goal, they just might win or medal in the event. If their self-determined goals are met, the world cannot defeat them and the world cannot make them feel less than. And even if they have moments of self-doubt and lose confidence in their abilities, they accept feeling like crap and work through it.
October 14th found my girls at another gymnastics meet. The same twin only received one medal; her twin and older sister placed in a few events and got multiple medals. Her score sheet showed improvements but not enough to win or place. But she saw the numerical improvement. No tears. None. No slumped shoulders, no bowed head, no disappointment. She cheered hard and often each time her teammates placed and she congratulated each one. As we were leaving, one of the older girls asked her, “hey how’d you do”? And my girl answered, “Good”.
That, my friends, is a win.