Dear Son, I want you to fail this year

Dear Boy,

Twelve years ago today you made me a mother. It didn’t go at all as I had planned, and dreamed about, your birth, but there you were anyway, with a ridge in your forehead and a cone on the back of your head, and so, very, very fragile and small.

For months I had to sleep facing you. My heart just couldn’t take the uncertainty of facing the other way, of not watching you sleep and knowing you were ok. My heart filled up with so many feelings when I looked at you. Sometimes they spilled out of my eyes and squeezed my chest so tightly as it learned just how much love it could hold for another person.

I would creep into the bedroom if you slept longer than an hour and put my hand on your chest, just to make sure that you were still breathing.

I learned everything about being a mom with you. I am still learning. I’ve never parented a 12 year old before, and you’ve never been a twelve year old and this year is a whole brand new thing to learn and figure out together.

You’ve started to figure out that I don’t always know what I’m doing. I imagine it’s thrilling and frightening at the same time to start to figure out that your parents are just people. We try hard, we do our best, we make a lot of mistakes along the way. We love you. That doesn’t change. We love you and we will always do the best things we know to do for you at the time.

I’m at the stage now as a mom where I sometimes want a do over with you. I want to go back in time, knowing what I know now, and do a few things differently. Sometimes I’m too hard on you. Sometimes I’m not hard enough. Sometimes I expect to much. Sometimes I don’t expect as much as you are obviously capable of.

You are capable of so much. You are intelligent and quick to understand. You learn voraciously. You love to read. When you are motivated you get so much done. So much. Days when you are motivated you get up and finish all your chores and school before anyone else in the house is even awake, and it’s awesome. Days when you aren’t motivated you are able to not accomplish anything, all day long. It’s somewhat amazing actually how slowly you can move. It’s still a mystery to me what it is that motivates you. But I can tell you that when you are motivated nothing will stop you. You’re amazing.

You are a wonderful big brother. Almost every night you help out at bed time by getting Bam Bam all showered and clean and ready for bed while I read the girls their night time story. You are so patient about sharing your room with a 3 year old. You make him feel like he’s one of the big kids and you help him with putting things away. He’s a real pain in the butt sometimes and you mostly manage it pretty well. The other day when he climbed up something by himself it was you he called to come and see. He wanted his big brother to be proud of him.

You hold Dek for me when he’s crying and do a better job than anyone of getting him to calm down and stop fussing. I love that I can give you a job to organize something or take care of people and rely on you to do it, when you understand that it’s an important one.

Every day or so you fetch drinking water, taking the empty bottle up the hill to the lady who sells drinking water and exchanging it and 12 baht for a full one that you are now strong enough to carry down the hill in your arms and haul into the house. You are officially stronger than me. I don’t think I could haul a 20 gallon bottle of water anywhere right now.

You like to walk to the shops for me and buy the eggs and meat and vegetables I need for cooking. The women who run the little shops like to teach you the Thai words for things you buy, and they sometimes give you treats. Every day your confidence with the language and the people grows a bit more. I like the way you aren’t afraid to try out the Thai words you know on people, and also how careful you are to get the tones right.

You are conscientious, about rules, about things that are other people’s responsibility. It is easy for you to remember what other people have to do and helpfully remind them about it. Sometimes you forget your own responsibilities, but I’m sure that’s something that will balance out with time.

It’s hard for me to think about how close you are to being a teenager. I know from being around your  uncles at this age how quickly this next season will go, the transition from boy to hulking great teenager who eats everything in the house, and a few blinks later to a man.

We have one year left of you being a boy. One year left to check everything off of the list of childhood experiences a boy can have. There are already plans to finally build a tree fort in the mango trees, now we live somewhere we can do that, and I know you want to go fishing with your dad again this year.

Those are cool things and we’re going to do them. But there’s one more thing I want for you this year, on the cusp of adolescence.

I want you to fail. I want you to fail a lot.

That sounds strange to you I’m sure, so let me explain.

You are immediately good at so many things that you have built this expectation that if you can’t do something right away, you can’t do it at all. I understand. I was the same way when I was your age. You haven’t really had many experiences of trying something, failing, and learning from that failure and getting up and trying again.

You know what happens when you have no experience at failing? You start to be afraid of it. You become afraid to try because you are afraid to fail.

There are lots of people in this world who are afraid to fail. Those people don’t get a lot of things done, and they rarely accomplish much. The people who do great things, who invent cool stuff, who change the world, they fail more often than they succeed. The trick is that they don’t quit because they fail. They keep trying until they find success. Thomas Edison, the guy who invented the light bulb, failed thousands of times before he perfected the design that most people still use today.

Inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, they try hundreds, sometimes thousands, of different things before they find something that works. If they were afraid to try we wouldn’t have things like computers, and smart phones, and cars and airplanes. We wouldn’t have medicines, and surgeries that can save lives, and any of the many other things we take for granted today. Neither would we have great music and art and stories. Wouldn’t it be silly if no one in the world played a musical instrument or sang because they were afraid they might play a wrong note every so often?

Without people who tried new things and then tried again when their first attempts didn’t meet with success, the world would be a lot different, and probably not better.

So this year, while you are still in the relative safety of of childhood and don’t have the worries of older people to deal with yet, I want for you to try things. I want you to try everything that interests you. Except for things like standing on the balcony railing, and jumping off of cliffs, and other things that put you in extreme danger. You’re right, the balcony is probably not as dangerous as cliff jumping. It just scares me to see you up there, mostly because I don’t want Bam Bam trying to copy you because if he stands on the railing he’s much more likely to fall off.

But try anything that we’ll let you try. I give you permission to get things wrong, to make attempts that don’t work out, to not have the ending figured out before you begin. I want for you to follow every interest, explore every curiosity, and to just get comfortable with not getting something right the first time.

I know that because you are my oldest child, my caution as a mother has limited you in this area. I have wanted to protect you from disappointment, from failure, from heartache. But I’m a bit smarter now than I was when you were a baby. I’ve learned a few things about being a parent from the things I’ve tried, and the ways I’ve failed and tried again, as well as the ways I’ve succeeded. I know now that if I don’t give you any room to fail I end up not giving you any room to succeed either. I need to let go and give you the space to figure out how to do things your way, to find out what your way looks like.

Last month you found this blog and you bookmarked it.  That means this is the first birthday letter I’ve written you that you will actually probably read on your birthday instead of when you are much older. So please take these words to heart.

I give you permission to fail my son, to try hard things that you might not be able to do at first. It’s the most important thing I can think of to give you this year, and I hope you seize it with gusto and do, and try, all the things.

Happy Birthday.

I love you always,


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