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The Challenge of Choice

While eating breakfast the other day, my son, Rhett, looked at me with tears rolling down his cheeks and said, “I don’t want to go to school. I hate school.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this from him, but usually it was when I was cajoling him out from beneath his covers for another early-morning start. And, it was the first time he had vulnerable, real-life tears instead of a forced, whiny cry. I gently asked him what was going on.

He replied that he had to complete a number scroll at school and was afraid he wouldn’t finish. This number scroll is handwritten pages of 0 to 1,000 taped together. All of the other kids had finished theirs and laughed at him because he was only at 400-something. I was puzzled. Rhett is a smart boy. How could he be so far behind? I knew he could count to 1,000; I recalled him droning on counting and counting and counting in the back seat of the car to entertain himself. It clicked as I paused and looked at my middle child. I realized that being at 400-something was his choice. He preferred to draw, turn his pencils and crayons into warriors battling on his desk, watch the other kids doing their work, or simply stare off into space than tackle the “boring” task of “just writing numbers over and over…It’s SO dumb! (insert wail here).”

His big brother, Jack, who had the same teacher and assignment in First Grade, seized the challenge, furiously scribbling numbers any chance he got, striving to be the first to complete his scroll. Rhett, however, would rather do anything BUT work on it, forever pushing it aside until he hit a wall: the end of the year. Now he was cornered by an impending deadline—probably the first real, independent deadline of his life—and humiliation. He cried thinking about being the only one not done. About the other kids making fun of him. About the prospect of not rising to Second Grade with his classmates. About having to do the work.

Knowing how he felt about the assignment, I tried to reel in my own type-A proclivities, my anxiety over him not being ambitious, or organized, or even engaged. I couldn’t understand how he could NOT do the work. It was absolutely foreign to me; just get it done and cross it off the list, dude! In my head, I yo-yoed between being annoyed with him for failing to finish and feeling sorry for him and wanting to swoop in and fix it. Ultimately, I knew this was a huge opportunity for him to learn so many lessons and none of them came in the form of Mommy-to-the-rescue.

I could, however, help him choose to see the scroll in a new way. My two sons couldn’t be more different and so, my expectations, communication, and parenting also need to be targeted. Each personality needs unique motivations, perspectives, and encouragement. Rhett loves a challenge, but is also a free-spirit dreamer. He doesn’t look at most things as an opportunity to be the best; he would rather play than work. If I frame experiences as a game, he will be excited and rise to the task.

I tried to turn his doom and gloom perception that it was impossible to finish into a challenge. Maybe it could be a game like “Scrollcraft,” where he earned gems the higher he scrolled. Or he could set a number goal for each day and try to beat it. I told him if I stayed really, really focused on what I was doing, I bet I could write at least 30 numbers in one minute. His eyes lit up. With his eyes watching the clock, I jotted the numbers 400-454. Then it was his turn. He hit 25 numbers. I told him if he tried that hard and focused on what he was doing that much at school, in 10 minutes he would have 250 numbers written and could finish his scroll in maybe just 3 days. He looked at me with both hope and doubt.

I emailed his teacher to share his anxiety over the project and the plan he had come up with to finish the job. Supportive as always, she said she knows Rhett can do it when he CHOOSES to; that she is there to support and encourage him; and, he will undoubtedly go to second grade next year. I love his teacher. (Sidebar: I really do love you teachers. Both of my sons have had wonderful teachers every year. They care, give, and inspire our children. This year in particular our teachers have helped my children grow academically, but even more importantly, as responsible and respectful young men. There are not enough words to express my gratitude for what our teachers give to our kids. Thank you!)

On day one he managed to reach 690. Day 2 he landed at 880. That left him with just 220 numbers to write over his last nine days. In 70 days of unfocused, willy-nilly effort, Rhett wrote about 400 numbers. He wrote more than that amount in just two days of focused, in-the-moment dedication and felt really good about himself, his abilities, and school.

Here’s my point to this little story: we all face situations that challenge us and push us out of our comfort zone. We all have idiosyncrasies and personality traits that affect how we react to those hurdles. No matter who we are, how we frame those scenes and choose to respond to them, will make or break us. Avoiding it won’t make it disappear. Delaying it doesn’t make it easier. Lying about it compounds it. Freaking out never fixes anything. Results come when we choose to focus, bear down, and address the issue with all of our effort. Whether it is losing weight, ending an unhealthy relationship, finding a job, running a marathon, dealing with bratty kids, being worn out and overworked, we have the power to stay true to our values, our goals, AND conquer the demon.

The key is to choose to be in the moment; don’t get carried away by the enormity, fear, or feelings of the situation. Stay focused on honestly examining and identifying the challenge and finding a way to position it to use your strengths, personality, and ultimate life goals to deal with and overcome it. Put simply, don’t let the smoke and mirrors of a situation steal your power. You’ve got this!

Hopefully Rhett will come home today with news that he defeated the insurmountable scroll. If not, I know he will be close to his goal and will have learned that he must choose to tackle life’s “boring” tasks or difficult challenges with focus, grit, and definitely a dash of Minecraft.

“It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~J.K. Rowling from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 


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