It was one of those assignments – the ones great educators applaud because they teach real-life stuff, not the cram-for-a-questionably-valuable-standardized-test kind of stuff. Our son’s 7th grade science teacher proudly explained her premise at open house, wisely winning buy-in from parents before we had a chance to let the reality sink in about the project we were about to witness:
“Make your own version of a ship-in-a-bottle, a complex object or scene inside an unaltered 2 liter soda bottle.” And here’s the reality check: the opening is a mere 2 cm and the furthest point from that tiny opening is about 18 inches!
“I want them to struggle,” she said, “appreciate the scientific process. Heinz 57 wasn’t “57” because they liked the number! It took that many tries to get it right. I want my students to know it’s ok to fail, that every failed attempt teaches them something. They need to problem-solve, be resourceful and not give up until they find a solution that works. They should be prepared to scrap several versions and move on. So have extra materials on hand and don’t let them procrastinate! This process takes time!”
Ok! Well, then… as concerned parents of millennials, we couldn’t help but join the applause. Our kids really could use a good lesson in perseverance, in hard work, in achieving something significant because they didn’t give up! But could they actually follow through?!
Little did we know just how hard and frustrating this process would be for our instant-everything, microwave-society kids! A You-Tube video wasn’t going to cut it this time. They would just have to be brave, come up with a plan and dive in with no guarantee of success until they wrestled their way through.
My mama anxiety level crept higher and higher as the weeks ticked by with our son in full avoidance mode. This was NOT his thing! He is a calculated, careful, stew about it until he feels confident in a successful strategy before ever taking a step kind of kid. He was stumped and really apprehensive about making that first attempt.
It was so hard to watch him! But I had my brother’s voice in my head. A hugely successful teacher and beloved coach, he tells me in love, “We don’t let our kids fail enough. We need to let them get their backs against the wall and figure it out. Real life will take them down unless they figure it out now!” So… I did what all good mamas do – left my boy wrestling on his own while my own knees found the floor next to the bed in the guest room (my own personal war room!). And I prayed. A lot.
On my runs through our neighborhood day after day I prayed some more. A perfect word began to rise from my gut for my son. Paralyzed by perfectionism (sadly, he gets it honestly!), the direct opposite of a risk taker, I began to pray that he would be FEARLESS! “Yes, Lord! Help him know that he is secure in You and because of that, he can be fearless! Help him know there is no risk here, only freedom to dive in and trust You to help him bring this project to a successful conclusion.”
The problem was… I forgot to pray that his mama would be fearless!
So… when the deadline was just days away and any initial attempts were feeble at best (with several discarded flops and extra runs to Michael’s for supplies!), my fix-it urges started rearing their ugly heads. Worse than a nervous twitch, I was working overtime to stuff down the frightening rise of panic from every part of my being.
I solved and re-solved that puzzle twenty times in my head at 4 am. I peppered my son with my “great ideas,” only to see him ignore most of them (good for him!). I paced nervously in the kitchen as he struggled to manipulate pieces deep in that bottle with long tweezers and poker sticks… or to find ANY glue that would make those pieces stick to the plastic. I was a hot mess… and he knew it! He even prayed at dinner one night that I would NOT stress! Sigh… I was not exactly the picture of fearless confidence… no even one little bit.
Finally, a sign of success!!! He settled on a system of layering glue and felt and drying overnight with marbles on top of the felt to weigh it down and act as a clamp. Just when the end was in sight, a snafu happened with the last layer of his golf fairway. In panicked dread that the last of his materials might be destroyed (and he was out of time for re-dos!), I lost any feigned control and barreled in, thinking I could come to the rescue. This was a BAD idea! My hands were shaking and in trying to help, I only made it worse!
I heard the most humbling words come from my son’s bewildered heart, “Mom, you’re freaking out!!”
Yep. I was. It was a mama melt-down of epic proportions. It was time to just back away. Slowly. And put my hot mess in time out! It was time to let my knees find the floor in the guest room where I belonged!
I buried my head into the side of that bed and pleaded with the Lord for forgiveness… and help! “Please help my son. Please make a way where there seems to be no way! Help me trust You to walk him through this without sticking my nose in the middle of it!!! Please help me to be the mom that shows him we can trust in You and not be afraid, not be stressed, not panic! … and please, Lord, if it is at all possible, can we NOT EVER have another ship-in-a-bottle project?!!!”
I thought again of the wisdom of his teacher, bringing parents on board before this project ever began. She knew that we would be on our own journey with our middle-school kids! This real-life stuff isn’t just for 13 year olds, it’s for the mamas who have a hard time giving them space to grow up! I need to let him struggle, let him find his own wall. When he is out of time and out of options, he needs to know that there will be things mom and dad can’t fix. Even at my best, there will be times that I will fail him. He needs to learn what I am still learning – to reach for the only One who will ALWAYS be His Savior – the One who will always help, always be steady, always be faithful. Our God always makes a way where there seems to be no way – and He can help my son see how he was created with talents and abilities he doesn’t need to be afraid to employ!
I am thrilled to say that although his mama failed the assignment, my son didn’t. He never gave up and saw this crazy project to the finish line. That bottle had a few battle scars… spattered glue from the many attempts to make those pieces stick!… and one fairway tree that never quite made it to vertical, but it was DONE. He shocked me when he wrote in his journal conclusion that it was a FUN challenge! Really?!! Despite the ups and downs, the many frustrations, he thought that by his standards, it turned out pretty well!!!
And when that crazy week was over, my son still wrapped his arms around me, squeezed me tight, and said, “love you” – like he always does – and headed off to bed. I am thankful for his unconditional love. Mama melt-down or not, I hope he sees that I do know where to turn when I hit my own wall, that I trust the Lord to walk us through anything. There will be much bigger challenges in this life than a puzzling science project. I want him to know that I believe he can accomplish great things withOUT my help, especially when he looks to the Lord to show him how… and that sooner or later I will learn to “pray it, not say it” more often!
I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you,
“Do not fear, I will help you.” Isaiah 41:13