Lessons Learned from a Whomping Willow

Eric (8) was sitting to my right. Emily (5) was on my left. Beth (3) sat half on my lap and half on Eric’s. Dressed in our jammies, my babies cuddled close on my bed while I read from Chapter 5 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The children sat still and listened quietly as Harry and Ron hopped into a flying car because they had missed the Hogwarts Express. Their eyes grew wide as the car swept through the clouds and darted over tree tops. Their mouths hung open as the engine kicked and bucked just when Hogwarts Castle came into view. When the car dove from the sky and crashed into the Whomping Willow, Emily shrieked and pulled my blue quilt over her head.

“It’s OK, Honey Bee.” I said as I patted the top of her head. “Harry will be OK.”

Emily peeked her nose from under the covers. “Does Harry get hurt Mommy?” she asked.

I paused before answering. Should I tell her the truth? Or should I lie? “Yes.” I finally admitted. “He does get hurt. But only a little bit. And he gets better.”

Emily bolted back under the sheets and squealed again. That didn’t go the way I had planned.

What I wanted to tell Emily is that it’s important for Harry get hurt crashing a flying car into a Whomping Willow because later in the story the same car will save Harry and Ron from Aragog, the giant spider. But I dint’t want to ruin the story. And I thought mentioning giant spiders would only scare her more.

So instead of explaining further, I sighed, patted Emily’s head again and continued to read about Ron and Harry arriving at the castle. Eventually, Emily crawled out from her den and listened with her brother and sister until the chapter was complete.

Later, as I reflected on the events of the evening, I remembered a speech by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. In a 2008 commencement address at Harvard University, Rowling told the graduates about “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.”

Standing before hundreds of hopeful graduates and their families, Rowling talked about her own upbringing, education, graduation, and subsequent unemployment. She talked about being a poor, single mom, scraping the bottom of the barrel just to survive. She talked about being miserable. She talked about being a disappointment to her family. She said, “The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

Failure, however, did not lead to Rowling’s demise. Instead it galvanized her passion for writing and spurred her to success. Rock bottom, she said, became the solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.

Relating her experience Rowling said:

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

As parents, we spend so much time trying to protect and insulate our children. We want them to be successful. We want them to be happy. Yet the hardest lesson we have to learn is that great happiness and great success come with a price – the risk of failure. And even more important, we have to understand that there is substantial benefit in allowing our children to fail.

A few weeks ago, Eric participated in the Pine Wood Derby with his Boy Scout Troop. Eric and Ken spent a couple of days working together to design, carve, sand and paint an eight inch long car made from a block of pine. Other than some sawing, a tool that Ken deemed too dangerous for an eight year old, Eric designed, built and painted the racer on his own.

When he finished, Eric beamed at me and displayed his prize. The edges were jagged and rough. The right wheel wobbled. Some of the red paint on the hood had seeped into the blue paint on the windows. The look of the finished product screamed “I was made by an eight year old and I have the blotchy paint job to prove it!”

My eyes scanned the vehicle before I finally smiled at Eric. “Well, what an interesting choice of colors. I can see you worked hard on this.” I said.

When derby day approached, I crossed my fingers. My fear was that Eric’s car would crawl down the ramp at a snail’s pace while his competitors’ cars zoomed across the finish line. My fear was that the right wheel would fall off and roll across the floor and that all the other Scouts would laugh and jeer. My fear was that Eric would lose every race. My fear was that Eric would fail.

And he did.

Well, to be honest, Eric’s car didn’t lose EVERY race. He won one – out of four. And his car was competitive in the other three races, finishing only a few tenths of a second behind the other cars. And the right wheel stayed on the whole time And he did have fun with his friends. But when Eric didn’t get a ribbon or a trophy and the edges of his smile tilted downward, I knew he was disappointed.

Later that evening Eric sat on the floor playing with his car. I sat at the kitchen table and watched. Finally, Eric sensed my eyes on him and looked up at me.

“Mom, I think I know what kind of car I want to make next year.” He said as he turned his model over in his hands and examined it.

I leaned forward. “What kind?”

For the next ten minutes, Eric described his vision. The car would be wedge shaped, smooth and sleek. He would put more weight in the front next time. He would paint a hockey design on the top. Eric told me what he would do better. He told me what he would change. He told me what he had seen. He told me that he had learned.

As Eric turned back to his toy, I sat back in my chair and smiled. It’s tough to watch your kids fail, I thought. But it’s worth it.

This article was originally published in Janice’s blog called Thoughts from 10 North Frederick Street.

Other articles by Janice:

It’s Not Just Child’s Play. Why You Should Support Extra Curricular Activities In Our Schools
The Power of Smile

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