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Trying Out: Learning to let our kids have their own emotions about putting themselves out there and accepting the results.

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I recently rediscovered six personal journals I wrote, dating from April 1990 (age 15) to May of 2000 (age 25). Ten years of my life that I tracked through high school, college, and the first two years of medical school. So much angst is written in those pages, and it was fascinating for me to go back and read about feelings and formative experiences that I barely or don’t remember.

Two of the most angst-ridden pages involve my second tryout for the high school drill team. I didn’t make it the first time I tried out. Here are my words right before the second tryout. I’ll change some names so as not to hurt the surely-now-professional dancers from 32 years ago.

“Katie, Angela and I had dancing tonight (tap & jazz). This weekend we have a Tex-Ann clinic to go to. I really do hope I make it this year. I tell everyone I don’t care if I make it because I want to be able to hide my pain if I don’t make it. I’ve gotten real good at hiding pain this year. Patricia told my mom that I should make it because I’m better than friend A and friend B. Then why did they make it last year and I didn’t? I haven’t ever said so, but I think I should’ve made it last year. I may not be great, but I’m better than a bunch of the people who did make it (friend C!!!)”

Do you remember trying out for anything in the school-aged years? Remember the posted winners’ names on the wall? The kids or teens crowding around the designated posting place, the names on the gym or theater wall. The quick scan of the paper with my eyes, and then the closer look, name by name, thinking surely I’d missed seeing my own name there. Realizing that my friends’ names were there but mine was not. The lump in the throat. The rising nausea. The forced congratulations and then the walk of shame home to cry on my bed.

Then, after the second year I tried out and made it, I wrote this on April 28, 1990:

“Well, I made Tex-Anns. Finally I did something right in my life. It was harder this year – only about 17 out of 76 made it. It will be a lot of hard work, but it will also be a bunch of fun. You know – it’s in the very good and very bad times that you realize how many friends you have. Since I made it, (cue long list of friends) have all reached out to congratulate me. Same thing happened when I had surgery.”

Looking back, I can’t remember any significant things happening to me where I had to get “real good at hiding pain” as a teenager. My life was pretty charmed. I also feel it was dramatic to say, “Finally, I did something right in my life.” But reading my own words from years ago helps me understand what may be the internal dialogue of my own children. The rejections I had are important adolescent moments that helped make me who I am today.

Being a naturally egocentric teen, I never imagined what my rejections would’ve felt like to my parents. They were my rejections. But now that I am a parent, watching my kids try out for anything, or put themselves out there to be potentially rejected, can be one of the most excruciating parts of parenting.

This week, one of my kids had tryouts for a team, so all of this is fresh on my mind. I have predictable behavior when my kids try out for something. I start building up their emotional health and confidence in the days leading up. “You know, there will always be people who are better than you and people who are worse than you. Just give it your best effort and we’ll see what happens.” Teenager nods and mutters, “mm hmm.”

“Sometimes you don’t get it because you’re not good enough, or your skills aren’t where they need to be. Sometimes it’s a numbers game and there just aren’t enough spots for everyone.” Teenager nods, and continues chewing dinner.

“You know this tryout doesn’t define you. Just put yourself out there and see what happens. If you don’t make it, it’s not a rejection of who you are. This tryout is just a blip on the screen of the amazing person you are.” Teenager nods, looks out the window.

When I’m really on a roll, I add, “You know, Michael Jordan didn’t make his varsity high school team as a sophomore. He wasn’t good enough. And look at him now!”

Usually at some point, another member of my family will tell me that I’m only making the try-out person more nervous. But I don’t care. I want these messages to be internalized, so that when I’m dead and gone, they’ll hear my nagging voice telling them they’re so much better than this one single experience in which they could be rejected. I want them to know that I am so proud when they put themselves out there.

“Rejection stings, but it’s a part of life, and the sooner the kids learn it, the better.” That’s my husband’s philosophy when I am going around the house fretting and making my kids more nervous by my presence. Are my emotions regarding my kids’ potential rejections exacerbated by decades-old emotional bruises from my own dramatic adolescent rejections?

This week, I went to get my son on the day he found out if he made his team. I sat in the car, texting him, ringing my hands, fretting. Luckily, my daughter was there to keep me in check. “I’m going to the list,” I would say. “Please don’t. That would be really embarrassing for him,” she parented me. “I can say I’m checking for a friend who can’t be here,” I suggested. “Mom, don’t. OMG.”

None of us wants to see our kids get rejected. Sometimes they will make the team, and sometimes they won’t. The tricky part for me is to let it be their experience – and their feelings in the diary – and not project my feelings onto their situation. After all, no matter how the tryout or application or audition goes, there are lessons to be learned. It takes guts to put yourself out there, and maybe that’s the best life lesson of all.

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