Colonial Day at my 4th grader’s school required a period character costume, researched and selected by the students four weeks in advance and was specifically billed as “student-driven, parent-enabled.” Fortunately for this working mom, our school emphasizes the “student-driven” aspect of such projects. Consequently, my son produced a document two weeks before Colonial Day that required my signature. Yes, my child had assembled the necessary elements of his costume. I asked my son if he had done so, or if he needed any help, and then signed, relieved and grateful that my signature was all that was required. And that was it.
So we come to the morning of Colonial Day, two children in the car and the third in shorts and a t-shirt, perched, one cheek on the chair, in front of a bowl of oatmeal, perusing “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Me: “Hey, isn’t today Colonial Day?”
Him: “Yeah. I think I forgot.”
Me: “So is your costume ready?” Crossing my fingers and toes that the answer is “totally!” I steel myself for what is likely to become a test of my parenting moxie and has already challenged my parental poker face.
Him, in an increasingly urgent tone: “I kept asking and asking for help from you and you didn’t help me! And now I have nothing to wear!”
And there you have it. Deflection is his first gambit, rolling fluidly into anger, then denial, followed by bitter disappointment, and finally despair. He would be the only kid at school without a costume. All the while, I am mulling my options.
This bright boy, equal parts perfectionism and procrastination, had gotten himself into a pickle. Eyeing the clock and his puffy tear-stained face, I suggest the playroom dress-up chest. Histrionics paused; he looks up at me skeptically. “Ok.” Sniff. He trudges off to the playroom. Five minutes of rummaging later, nothing is quite right for the boy with the highest standards and poorest planning.
And then I realize that this is our “Challenge Success moment”; the natural consequence of his procrastination, the first real “tough love” challenge for a mother and son, the culmination of years of parenting books, seminars, and mommy blogs. I must let him fail. I must let him feel the results of his actions.
We pile into the car and I turn on the radio hoping to soothe his anguish, or at least muffle it. The girls notice his distress. He quietly gazes out on the passing road. We are all quiet for a while and all I can think is how embarrassed he will be and how sharp an emotion embarrassment is for this particular boy. He is proud, always has been, but hasn’t yet made the connection between hard work and achievement – and consequently, is often surprised and humiliated when something doesn’t come easily. I have always told myself it’s a “long game.” It will come. Growth mindset. Growth mindset.
“Hey,” I whisper “do you want to try one last thing? I have ten minutes.” He looks up at me. Sniff.
“Should we try to throw something together really fast? I bet we can find a solution.”
“Ok,” he says pitifully. I tell the girls we will drop them off now. I am driving and he is googling the nearest craft store location. Mercifully, it opens in 10 minutes.
I am driving and thinking, thinking about whether I am doing the right thing, rescuing him from his mistake, thinking about how on earth we can make a life-sized colonial barrister from glitter glue and pipe cleaners, when he takes my hand, squeezes it and gives it a kiss, “thank you, Mommy.”
I should emphasize that my craft skills include and are limited to macaroni sculpture. I see nubby white yarn. A colonial barrister wig? Check. I rip the package open and a mile of yarn spills onto the floor in a scramble. Not ideal. I grab an end and start winding around my arm.
“Open that pipe cleaner package and hand me one? Let’s try something.”
“What are you doing? That does not look like a wig, Mom!”
“Have some imagination! Let’s see!” I loop it and secure it with the pipe cleaners, then place it on top of his head. He runs to the mirror across the aisle.
“Ohhhhh!” he exclaims through a wide grin. “Now I need a black robe…I can use a white napkin from the cafeteria for the tie. Oh, black felt! Do you think this will work?”
We tear the plastic package of one black felt square, then another. I drape them on his body. “Perfect! Do you know how to sew, Mommy?”
I don’t stop to acknowledge the absurdity of the question. We are now late for school and I need to get to work. We collect our torn packages in a wad, check out, and for $16 and 15 minutes, we are back on the road to school, costume in hand.
“Mommy, you sure are quick-witted. I really owe you one,” he crows. A few staples later and he joins his costumed class, beaming, proud, looking something like a colonial barrister.
So why did I do my kid’s school project? Without parental intervention, he would have learned a hard, public, and potentially humiliating lesson. I spared him that. He was clearly grateful. Did I also rob him of the lesson?
I hope he learned more from my intervention than from the mistake alone. He learned about my values and my commitment to family. He learned to be optimistic and to iterate. He did learn the importance of planning ahead but he also saw that sometimes quick-wit and creativity can save the day. He experienced kindness and felt empathy.
Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. I went with my gut and my knowledge of my son. Did we have a long talk before bed that night? You bet. Will he change his ways? We’ll see. Will I rescue him again? Probably not. But I’m glad I did my kid’s school project.
Sabrina Braham, MD is a pediatric physician in Menlo Park, California, an adjunct clinical instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a member of the Advisory Board of Challenge Success. Sabrina served as PTA chair at Synapse School in Menlo Park for two years and continues to be active in the area of education and learning differences, via both professional affiliations and philanthropic efforts.