What I Learned When My Daughter Chose Her Own Life Lessons

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.


Wait, what?


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.

Skiing Echoes Life

Every year for Thanksgiving, we take a long weekend and go skiing. In Canada. The irony of celebrating American Thanksgiving on Canadian soil isn’t lost on any of us. Like many things about our life, our family has decided to embrace the unusual and we have made Thanksgiving in Canada our own. This year, as my husband and kids were bombing down the most amazing powder runs (and I was wallowing in the holes I made by falling while lagging behind them) I got to thinking about how much our life is like our Canadian ski trips.

First, there will always be misadventures along the way. This year, we packed all the skis, boots and snow gear into the cargo box, threw the kids in the car and drove the five hours to Whistler. Only to realize that we neglected to bring a key to said cargo box. And we didn’t have Canadian cell service. Or internet. Or a phone book. Or shoes, as two of us wore flip-flops and slippers in the car. Last year, the misadventure was a sick, sick kiddo. The trip before that, my daughter and I had to hike up a run in ski boots, carrying our skis after we hit a point that required jumping a rocky, cliff-like area to keep going. Just like life, something always happens.

In my world, it was losing my career to “unexpected complications” and learning to navigate a life lived at a slower pace. I left a career that made a tangible difference in people’s lives. It took me years to regain that sense of purpose and community, to realize that there is value in small acts of kindness, and strength in perseverance, even if the end result is running a short race with my kids instead of running a marathon

While skiing, at some point, you will get stuck. I was following my family on Saturday. My husband flew to the bottom. Then my son, then my daughter. Then me, until…poof…tumble….flop. I was face-first in deep, deep snow. I managed to flip over to my back somehow. I’m still not quite sure how, but I think if you picture a fish on a dock, flopping around, then put the fish into white snow pants, a green jacket and skis, it would look like me. So, I got to my back, only to plant my skis straight into the snow. There I was, skis buried to my boots, looking up at my ski tips. I think there was a ski pole under me somewhere. My bindings were buried in snow. I was going nowhere. People on the chairlift above me were giggling. I could see my family at the bottom, and heard “Are you stuck?” Yes. Yes I was.

Five minutes later, my 12-year-old hero in bright green ski pants climbed to my rescue to help pull me out of the hole. Later in the day, he skied into some gnarly trees and my husband helped him back out. Later still, my daughter skied into thigh deep snow and we all had to pull her out.


Like life, we all need a little help sometimes. After my first surgery, I was one hundred percent determined that nothing would change. I would work, parent, manage medical devices and deal with pain by telling myself it was mind over matter. One night, my husband and I went to a concert. I felt lousy, but didn’t want to ruin his night, so I took (so many) deep breaths and made it through the beginning of the show. Until I couldn’t stand up. I was in enough pain that I was literally stuck in a chair, rather than the snow. That night, as he carried me through downtown, I realized I was going to need some help along this journey.

Some of my best memories from skiing come from the misadventures, mainly because we’ve learned to laugh along the way. As my daughter and I crested the top of the Whistler Bowl trail last year, boot packing up and carrying skis while people flew past us the other direction, she threw herself on the ground and panted out “I’ll never….complain….about hiking….again!” I was doubled over, laughing in the snow.

This year, while she was standing in thigh deep snow, my husband skied up and said, “Wow! You were flying! You’re such a little ripper now!”

“Daddy, did you just call me a little stripper?” Cue the laugh track, in the snow.



Like skiing, life is better when I laugh, even (and maybe especially) if it’s at myself. While my husband was carrying me home after the concert, he started randomly commenting about my ankle. “We’ll get some ice for it! Your ankle will be ok!” I was a little out of it at the time, but later I asked him what he was talking about. He told me that people were staring and he didn’t want anyone to think he drugged me in a bar. I laughed so hard I fell down. I still occasionally lean on him, hop and say “my ankle!” just for fun. (Pro tip if managing a health problem: Leave an event before your husband is concerned about being stopped by police and accused of assault.)

The last thing I’ve learned from falling and flailing and failing, both on the ski slopes and in life is to take a moment and appreciate the view. While my daughter and I were collapsed in the snow, exhausted from our hike out, we took a moment to admire where we were. We were back at the top of the aptly named Peak Chair, an easy chairlift ride to a pretty view. But once we had hiked it, boot packing the trail with (a lot of) sweat and effort and heart, we took a moment and took it all in. The view was astounding. We were touching the top of the world, surrounded by jagged peaks and blue sky.

It’s like that for me for every hike now, for every ski day and every run. Maybe I would have gotten to this point anyway, where I would hold every adventure a little tighter, value it a little more. But I think for me, I’ve learned to value the moment and take in the view, surrounded by people I love because it’s been a tougher climb to get here.