DNF: Did Not Finish

We live in a society that equates parental status with child performance. 

In fact, just last week voters in Missouri had an amendment on the ballot that would tie teacher tenure and salaries to test scores and other performance measures. We thrive on our children’s reading levels. We gloat over mastery of multiplication tables. We live on an emotional high for days when our children are picked for student council, homecoming court, or scholarships.

So what happened this weekend when my daughter flat-out failed?

This weekend my daughter participated in her first Powder Puff Derby. It is the equivalent of the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby except with more bling. She designed her car, sanded it, painted it, picked out weights to get it to the official 5.0 ounces, and glued on those weights. All she had help with was to get the wheels in place and cutting the car out of the block of wood.

I was proud of her already during this process. I could see her mentally check things off her “Derby Car To Do List.” She consulted with The Home Depot worker about what her glue options were and where the spray paint was. She thoughtfully decided which color silver to buy. She did it all, and I was proud of her accomplishment.

Katarina sits with other Cadettes as their cars race down the track.

Katarina sits with other Cadettes as their cars race down the track.

The day of the race was a different story. She discovered that morning that one wheel did not spin as fast as the others.

“I must have gotten glue on the axel, Mom. It’s not going to work right.”

I did what every parent would have done. I started discussing solutions and fixes and should-haves. We got to the race and blew more graphite into the wheels (while I hoped and prayed that a little more graphite would make it all better), got it weighed, and entered her shiny silver car into the “Best Color Competition.”

The Girl Scout Cadettes went first. I told her that her odds were good with only seven Cadettes in the race. Each car races twice, once on each side of the track. Katarina’s car did not finish either time. Each time she looked over at me with pressed lips but a brave face. She did not win “best color” either.

The shiny silver car that Did Not Finish.

The shiny silver car that Did Not Finish.

It was a total failure. 

Or was it?

With grace Katarina walked across the stage last to be called for her Girl Scout patch for her vest. With a quiet resolution she got in our car, held her shiny silver car, and let one silent tear slip out. I reached out to hold her hand.

She said to me, “It’s okay, Mom. I just now know what to do for next year.”

Readers, I can only speak for myself, but I sincerely believe that as parents we hope our kids don’t turn out to be total selfish jerks. The problem with this is that we foster winning at all cost, give ribbons for just participating, and hand out trophies to losers so our kids don’t get their feelings hurt. We insulate them from reality. I hope that on the day Katarina graduates from high school I can remember what a defining day Saturday, November 8, was to her…and to me.

Katarina lost big time. In fact, she didn’t just lose…she was declared a DNF. I hope more kids can have this experience that develops grace and determination and resilience…or…on the flip side exposes what self-centered punks they are. I don’t want to set my children up for failure, but I am not going to run from it either. Thankfully, my parental “tenure and salary” is not tied to my children’s performance.

There are many areas of my life that I have been declared a DNF. Can you identify some of your own areas, Readers?

While we do not need ribbons or trophies for these DNFs we can pause and with a tight lipped smile like Kat’s know that those DNFs are what make us who we are. We get up and try one more time for ourselves…for our family…for our work…for whatever or whomever we hold dear. Again. And again.



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