I’ve talked about my desire to teach my kids to have loud voices, to advocate for themselves and for others. Often, I’ve related that to the politics of the day. But really, kids learn to speak for themselves in smaller spaces, in family conversations and school hallways. So I’m taking a little bit of a left turn today to tell a story about my daughter, and what happened when everyone wanted her to learn (opposing) life lessons.
The Beginning, 2016
My daughter is a word nerd. She inhales books and discusses the best new releases with her equally wordy friends. So last year, when she was finally eligible for Battle of the Books, she was all in.
Battle of the Books is a nationwide competition put on by librarians in school districts everywhere. Teams of five students read twelve books, and answer detailed questions about the books in rounds of competitions. In my daughter’s district, fourth and fifth graders compete. Each school holds 2 months of school-wide competition. The winning team advances to a district final.
Battle of the Books, Fourth Grade
Last year, her team came in second in her school, missing districts by a point or two. Her team was full of great readers but a few of them argued over answers, and often had trouble agreeing.
I’m a huge advocate of kids learning from their own mistakes, and this was a perfect example. They squabbled during the school rounds and those arguments were the team’s downfall.
Lesson My Daughter Learned (I Thought): Sometimes, it’s important to put aside disagreements and work together towards a goal.
The team seemed to take that to heart. This year, four of the girls on the team came back, they added a fifth, revived the team name and started reading. They had extra meetings to make sure everyone knew their books. They talked out any confusion, and added a team requirement that each team member read 10-12 books, multiple times.
In the middle of the early rounds, my daughter told me she realized they were doing better because her team was all girls (they had one boy last year) and they all read more books.
Lessons Learned (According to My Daughter): First, work harder for what you want. Second, boys have cooties.
Battle of the Books, Fifth Grade
The school rounds continued this year, and her team was ahead every round. By the time it was down to two teams, it was clear they would win the school title and move on to finals.
That’s also the week her team realized that one of the girls would be out of town for districts. It was the beginning of the Battle of the Books drama.
How would they fill that spot? The girls picked their original team; could they simply pick a friend as a replacement? Would a new person agree to extra study sessions? Could they enforce the team requirement that the alternate read 10-12 books, multiple times?
The librarian laid down the replacement law: Any fifth grader who competed was eligible to enter a random drawing to take the alternate spot, if they had read a minimum of two books. In theory, it kept teams from replacing a weaker team member with a book-reading ringer, keeping it fair for everyone.
My daughter did not think it was fair. Her team did not think it was fair.
Battle of the Books, Alternate Ideas
That night, I suggested that daughter should clarify what she wanted. A teammate started a virtual team meeting. They decided to offer other ideas.
They explained to the librarian that they wanted a teammate they could work with. They wanted a girl-power team. Mostly, they wanted someone who met the unofficial team qualifications, or no one at all. They wanted to compete as a team of four.
Lesson I Wanted My Daughter to Learn: When you think a rule is unfair, work to change it.
The librarian listened and understood their concerns. She felt bad that it came down to a random draw. But she also told them that she had to consider teams from other schools and how a change would alter the future of the competition. The original plan stood. She told them it was a life lesson.
Lessons The Librarian Wanted The Team to Learn: Sometimes, the best plans change, requiring flexibility. It’s important to show grace and acceptance in the face of unexpected adversity.
Initially, we thought that was the end of it. We were wrong.
Battle of the Books, The Hurricane
The night before the draw, the girls started an email campaign to all the librarians in the school district, asking for a change in how the alternate was chosen. One girl sent an email filled with emojis. Another singed hers “with good wishes.” The first librarian responded with support. The second suggested better sportsmanship.
The girls stood their ground. They asked the parents to get involved. They met with the principal. Emails and texts flew between the team, the schools and the parents.
After a whirlwind morning, the girls got the news: They could choose to compete as a team of four, or take the randomly drawn alternate, their choice. They huddled to make their decision.
They took the alternate.
Lessons I Wanted My Daughter to Learn (Part Two): Persistence pays off, and it’s both OK and important to stand your ground.
Persistence pays off….and here they were, accepting the original plan, the one they hated and fought against and started a virtual cyclone over. I was so confused.
That afternoon I asked my daughter what had happened? What changed their minds?
Once the decision was in their hands, having another team member didn’t seem so bad. They all agreed, she said. They wanted another kid to have the chance to be excited about going to districts as well.
Lesson Learned (According to My Daughter): Autonomy matters. To quote my daughter directly: “It’s important to be able to make your own decisions, not have somebody decide things for you.”
As for me, I realized that autonomy does matter. My daughter was right. It is important for her to learn her own lessons, even if it’s not the lesson I would choose. Whether you are an adult on the wild ride that is parenthood or a tween learning independence, sometimes life lessons come packaged in ways you don’t expect.