During my freshman year of college I took a class called Human Development. I’m pretty sure I picked it to fill a general education requirement, but I think things I learned there have been pretty pervasive in how I developed as a parent. One of the things which I remember clearly was a lesson on how emotional needs drive child behavior. The classic example is the child who misbehaves because he wants attention. Punishment does not resolve the behavior because it is rewarding the behavior with attention. To extinguish the bad behavior it needs to be ignored while some desirable behavior gets the attention reward. The example is used because it is simple and clear. In practice the manifestations are much more complex.
Gleek has a science fair project and she has been stressed about it from the moment it was assigned. This puzzled me because Gleek likes science. Many times we have experiments in progress residing on windowsills or in corners. She likes to take notes and she watches science documentaries for fun. It seemed to me that a science fair project would just provide an excuse for a more elaborate than normal experiment. Instead she was stomping around the house declaring hatred for science and stating that she would just get a zero. I helped her look up options and pick a project. We set it up and the actual process seemed to soothe her. Measuring into jars and taking notes was happy. I thought we were past the stressful part.
The deadline loomed. Gleek had to take her happily-collected data and turn it into a display and a short presentation. The stress, stomping, and emotional declarations returned full-force. Gleek turned into a little ball of stress at bedtime one night. It was a night when I was already worn out, because that is always when kids schedule their massive emotional melt-downs. Gleek resisted all my attempts at reassurance or problem solving. She kept declaring a desire to just fail, which is pretty much to polar opposite of her usual desire to excel. After forty minutes of unpleasantness, during which I did not always wear my best mom hat, Gleek finally said something which made sense to me.
“I don’t want to be judged!”
It was not the science or the complexity of the display board. It was not fear of presenting in front of people. It was the fact that the science fair is a competition, and those always push Gleek’s anxiety buttons. She is the kid who deliberately makes mistakes so that she does not have to be in the spelling or geography bee. The only way she could see to escape the competition was to fail the project, but she was caught because, unlike the spelling bee, the project was also part of her classroom grade. In this new light all of her stress and stomping made sense. But until those words came out of her mouth neither of us knew where all the stress was coming from.
The emotion ebbed and we found a few ways to separate the competition portions of the project from the school work portions. Because Gleek is right. Competition is not the point of science fairs. The projects should be their own reward. I just wish we’d figured out where all the stress was coming from a month ago when the project was first assigned. We could have saved a lot of stomping.
The project is due on Friday. The display board is sitting partially assembled on my front room floor. Gleek came home sick from school today. I don’t know if the sickness is related to the stress or if she has caught one of the many varieties of flu which are making the rounds this winter. We’ve found the emotion which was driving the behavior, and that has defused it, but not completely. There are more threads and emotions involved here. I just hope we can muddle through and get the project pounded into something that will be satisfactory. The part that was not covered in my Human Development class was how the parent’s emotions play into these troubles as well. As I try to navigate us through this stress, I have to ponder if I’m really willing to let her fail or if I’ll provide assistance to get the project done. I have to decide how much help I’ll provide. Most of all, I have to look at my choices and evaluate whether I’m making them based on some need of mine instead of on what is best for Gleek. It is possible the best experience she could have would be to fail this project, experience that failure fully, and pick up to do something else. If that is what is best for her, I should let her do it. Even if it makes me look like a bad or uncaring parent.
Right now she’s not aimed at failure. Shes inching her way toward a completed project, which makes me glad. Later this evening I’ll help her tape things to her display board. Hopefully all will be well.