It's a very sobering experience when, as a 28-year old adult, you meet an eight-year-old that is more mature than you. But that is exactly what happened to me one summer night, when I was at a bowling alley celebrating a friend of a friend's birthday. Two of the people in attendance brought their daughter, Bridget. And she was a bright, bubbly, excited little ball of fun, as most eight-year-olds are.
Her parents set her up with her own little pair of bowling shoes and bowling ball, a nice, light, five-pounder, the only bowling ball that she could actually lift with her own two hands. As Bridget's mom inputted her name into the computer, I remember her saying, "No bumpers, she'll be fine." (For those not familiar with bowling terminology, bumpers are the rails that go up in front of the gutters to prevent gutter balls.)
As I was inputting my own name into the computer, one lane next to them, I remember being shocked by that statement. No bumpers! For an eight-year-old! Is there anything crueler? I flashbacked to my own eight-year-old self, and distinctly remember that every bowling birthday party I ever went to always used bumpers, because otherwise how could the kids ever have any fun if their ball went into the gutter every time? What kind of parenting is this? I thought to myself. It turns out, the best kind.
The first game, Bridget scored a five which is, for those not familiar with bowling, as bad as it sounds. No surprise there. What was a surprise, however, was her reaction toward it. She didn't scream, she didn't cry, she didn't whine. She gave a frustrated shrug, and that was it.
"Don't worry Bridget," her parents consoled her. "You can try again next time!"
And the most incredible thing to me was that she believed them. Yes, she could try again next time, because the wonderful thing about bowling is that there are multiple games, and so you have multiple chances to make up for a less than stellar score (metaphor for life, perhaps?). And try again she did.
The second game, she made one strike, and then another, and then a spare, and ultimately ended with a score of 45. "Yay!" She screamed, jumping up and down. Her parents were so proud. "Good job Bridget!" they said. "See, we knew you could do it!" I was proud of her too, proud of her for handling a situation in a much more mature way than I ever could.
This little eight-year-old girl had known a fact about life that I didn't learn until my late 20s: Our failures, especially ones as minuscule as getting a low score at a bowling birthday party, aren't tied to our self-worth. She knew that her low score had nothing to do with her identity as a person, and it said nothing about her skills, intelligence or work ethic. Most importantly, she knew it was just a bowling game. Birthday party bowling games are hardly worth any mental anguish.
When it comes to children, they seem so impressionable and fragile that any slight discomfort could shatter their still developing psyche. "They're just not mature enough to deal with the hardships of life," we adults think, so we want to spare them any hardships for as long as possible. But what if this obsession with shielding children from adversity is actually doing them a disservice?
Isn't learning how to fail one of the best gifts you can give a child, not the worst? Actually, watching someone deal with failure in a healthy, magnanimous and graceful way is a pretty great gift, too. So thank you Bridget, for giving me one of the best gifts I've ever received. And it wasn't even my birthday.