“High-five young man, you just recited one boring poem! It could have been so much better. I love you little buddy.”
My five year old failed on stage, in a major school-wide event. He was selected, on behalf of his class, to deliver a poem to a darkened theatre full of hundreds of parents, teachers, and students. He was the youngest among maybe 20 ranging in age from 5 to 16 or so. He failed to execute “The Plan”.
What Was The Plan?
The plan was to deliver a show. He and a girlfriend “won” the in-class try-outs for the main event, selected because most of the 5 year old girls and boys couldn’t remember their poem, or had their hands in their pants while speaking, or cried, or panicked, or otherwise couldn't handle the pressure of standing on a stage alone to do the job.
Keeping hands out of pants while remembering a minute long poem is a huge accomplishment for a five year old. I get it. Still, I suggested to him that he could up the ante. Maybe, since he’d already proven he could do the basic version, he could now work on a level two performance.
I tried to convince him that standing there with his hands laced behind his back, looking into the air and speaking in a la-la voice with even meter was boring. Yes, it was good for a five year old, but in absolute terms, it was gosh dang boring. I wanted to hear him in my heart. Speak to me! I want the message!
“My boy, your poem is about what a child wants to do when he grows up. Tell it to me like you want me to know what you hope to become. Use your hands, act with your voice and body. Immerse yourself.”
He was skeptical. After all, he had been given kudos for doing what I was telling him was boring. So I said:
“Yes, it was very good, you are a wonder child, absolutely amazing. But have a look at another level.”
I found a clip of Shane Koyczan’s delivery of his poem “We Are More” for the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies. We watched it, and both agreed enthusiastically that Shane injected that poem right into our minds and hearts. There was a big difference between what my son did and what Shane did, and Shane’s was the better one. We looked at a few more great examples of the spoken word. He was convinced.
So then we went back to his poem to examine each stanza and what it was saying. We practiced delivering as though he were the one who wrote it, speaking directly to each person, looking in their eyes and guiding their minds to a message. We practiced it maybe fifteen times and by the end, he was getting good. He had confidence. He was ready.
The Performance: A Deluge of Disaster after Disaster
First Disaster: The organizers were mind-blowingly boring. They wasted more than half an hour with introductions, thank-yous, describing the event, and other things. In that time, those boring grown-up and teacher role-models were conditioning my boy to believe that boring was good. Lucky for them I forgot my brick at home.
Second Disaster: For the poetry presentations, they brought up some student Masters of Ceremonies, a girl-and-boy team of older students. These MCs introduced and set-up each performer, but they set them up for failure, at least my boy and a few others.
The first performer was the girl, the only other chosen from my son’s class. As she approached, it was clear that the microphone was too high for her. It was clear to all but the MCs, who did not fix it. She tipped the whole stand to get it right because she didn’t know how to adjust it. She grasped the microphone tightly with two hands, went rigid, looked right into her mother’s eyes, and recited the poem perfectly. Huge applause! This girl had done exactly what she had practiced, flawlessly. I was shattered. Happy for her, but worried for my son because he had just seen the little girl rewarded with a huge round of applause for doing exactly what I told my son to avoid.
As my boy climbed to the stage for his turn, I silently begged the MC: “Please, put the microphone right so my son can use his hands.” My boy had no experience with public speaking so I was sure that he wouldn't handle the unexpected of a misconfigured microphone. Luckily the MC did adjust the microphone. Unluckily he didn’t tighten it. As soon as the MC turned around, the mike drooped down to my boy’s chest height. The MC didn’t bother to fix it. I could have thrown a brick again.
My boy’s eyes revealed his thoughts as he fumbled with the mike. There was a struggle going on inside of him. Does he try to please his father by doing something that nobody else had done, or does he do what is safe and will surely get him a reward? We kept our eyes on each other for a few seconds and I willed him:
“Courage my son!”
Desperately sending psychic waves of love and support to him … he looked away. His decision was made, and I knew what it was. He recited with a lala voice and even meter, just like the girl before him. He even stumbled, forgetting a verse for a second.
When he was done I stood up and applauded him as loudly as possible, along with the rest of the theatre. He went down and I met him at the front row, where he said to me,
“I’m not going to be the best.”
We watched the rest of the performance. Out of twenty, there were only two that were any good at all. One was a girl, maybe 13, who performed like my boy had planned. The very best was a 15 year old who acted both parts of a poem documenting a conversation between two people. I’m thrilled that those two people took a chance so that my boy could see the result.
At home, my son and I did a post-mortem. I told him, “Don’t worry about it, it’s over now. You did fine, as good as most of the others and better than some. But understand that, had you even moved one hand a little or used your voice a little better, then you would have been one of the top. It’s so easy to be better than the average. Average people don’t try hard. They’re frightened to look different. But you saw that the people who tried to do better got a better result. Even if they messed up, they would have learned something and got practice, so that someday soon they would be good.”
My boy was excited. He looked forward to his next chance at doing something in public. As for me, I’m so happy that his performance was a failure. Had he performed the same way and thought himself a great success then there would have been much less growth.
There is a difference between a child believing that he will fail at every new task, and a child realizing that he can do better. I do not advocate making children feel like chronic failures. Rather, my approach is to make my children feel like they can do anything. When they fail to achieve a great planned outcome that seemed within reach, then the response is to examine what happened, contemplate and learn from it, and improve next time. This is called feedback and it is the strongest way for children to learn. When they learn to walk, they try everything and whatever results in a fall is corrected until eventually they can walk. Nobody talks the children through walking, or teaches with drawings or videos or dolls. Only the repeated trying and failing, until they succeed, results in walking.
Having a parenting style that habitually includes such explicit feedback leads very quickly to a capable child with the rare ability to examine her own thoughts and behaviours relative to outcomes that she wants. He or she will have a much higher capacity for self-control and self-improvement than others.