You’ve probably suffered a broken heart once or twice — the kind where you lose 10 pounds from the tears you shed and wonder how you’ll go on living.
Or maybe you’ve been the target of mean girls who didn’t want you at their lunch table and it made you never want to return to school again. You probably cried, didn’t answer your phone, hid in your room under your covers and thought life was over. And it felt like it was.
But the truth is, you never truly know the pain of rejection until it happens to your kid.
It was a beautiful fall day. My 9-year-old son Mack had been working for weeks on the song and monologue he’d perform at auditions for his school’s drama group. He chose a Frankie Valli tune (because his voice is a touch high) and a bit from the movie City Slickers — the part where Billy Crystal goes into his son’s class to talk about his career and realizes he hates his job, life goes way too fast, and decides to join his just-as-fed-up friends and head out to the wild, wild West.
After the auditions, my son was joyful and proud and counted down the days until he’d receive that letter revealing whether he’d made the cut.
This was that day. My child would be getting off that school bus with a letter in his backpack that he was instructed not to open until he was in the presence of a parent. On this day, that parent was me … and I was so glad.
Mack came barreling out of the bus with a huge grin on his face. The letter was not in his backpack but in his hand. He waved it in my face and begged, “Please, please Mom, can I open it right now while we walk home?” Of course, I was just as excited as he was and told him to tear that baby open.
Lesson #1: Prep your child for disappointment! This was my first run at this and I didn't even think about readying him for rejection.
Mack opened the letter and I watched that huge grin turn into deep heartbreak and I was so unprepared. He ran into the house in silence, bolted up to his bedroom and buried his face under the pillows as he cried hysterically. I didn’t have much time to read a chapter from a rules of rejection parent self-help book or even call my mom. I had to take action right then and there and didn’t have the first clue as to what to do. They don’t teach you this stuff in your pre-natal classes!
At this point his despair turned to anger.
Lesson #2: Prepare yourself for damage to your heart (and your house)!
“I just want to punch something,” he said through a face full of tears. Ok, I thought, and handed him a pillow. He punched for about two seconds and then demanded “something hard like a wall!” Oh, I knew that wasn’t good. And then came “I just want to punch my window!” Oh no, I thought to myself, now he’s gone completely crazy!
That’s when my first smart idea came to mind and I handed him a magazine. “Here,” I said, “Rip this up. I promise it’ll make you feel so much better.” Mack liked that idea and then began finding every magazine in the house to tear into little bits. It started to look like a shredder was set loose, covering the house in confetti. The good thing was, it gave me time to research rejection.
Lesson #3: Arm yourself with knowledge in advance!
Sadly, the best I could do at the time was find Robert DeNiro’s commencement speech to the 2015 graduation class of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s an amazing speech and one to keep in your back pocket, but watch it without your children present! The language might be OK for a 21-year-old, but for a 9-year-old, not so much. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way. So now my child was angry, sad, and full of a new vocabulary to express those feelings!
That’s when a second idea popped into my head — a list I once read, long before I had children, of extremely successful people who had repeatedly faced rejection. I had cut it out and held onto it forever. Or at least, I thought I had, until there I was Googling it again!
I learned that Katy Perry was dropped from three labels before she found success and that Stephen King’s famous thriller novel "Carrie" had been rejected 30 times before it was published. And perhaps most importantly, Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before inventing the light bulb. So, there you go! Finally, my son was feeling a little better. Some hugs, kisses, reassurance and time helped heal him.
Fast forward a year, and home came the envelope again.
This time we were both ready. He opened it slowly as my heart beat out of my chest. I crossed my fingers, prayed, and closed my eyes. Please, I thought, don’t put us through this again. He opened the letter. He handed it to me without reading it. From the look in my eyes, he knew.
This time, instead of burying his tear-covered face in his pillow, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I want to go out get some frozen yogurt and then I want us to take this letter and burn it like a bad memory.”
So the two of us went to the kitchen sink with matches in hand and burned the letter. And while he felt the pain of rejection once again, he also felt the success of being able to handle it better.
My now 10-year-old was developing something no one can take away: grit. And the younger you learn it, the better off you will be — and hopefully, you will never give up.
Joanna LaMarca is mom to Mack and the Senior Producer of the Fourth Hour of TODAY with Kathie Lee and Hoda.