The Serious Problem Involving Kids and Rejection

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Photo by Corbis

When I was 10-years-old, I tried out for the cheerleading squad. I had taken gymnastics classes for two years to prep for these tryouts. My mother had hired a friend’s teenage daughter to coach me through the cheers. I was prepared in every way a child can be. 

I didn’t make the team. The devastation was palpable. I cried all night. 

Kids today won’t experience that kind of rejection. They’re growing up in “everybody gets a turn” world where every child gets a chance to kick the ball, sing the song, and win the trophy. But that’s not always such a good thing.

According to Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids and host of Discovery Life Channel’s “World’s Worst Mom,” parents have become fearful of letting kids fail  — and that’s a serious problem. “Society keeps drilling into us that our children are extremely vulnerable and will never recover from anything,” Skenazy tells Yahoo Parenting. Our 24-hour news cycle and heavy focus on bullying, suicide, and self-esteem issues also play into this phenomenon.

This past fall, my 7-year-old daughter — and 115 other kids in her school — didn’t get into the school play. At first, I was devastated. How would she react? I was a wreck, wringing my hands with fear. How would I tell her?

That night, with tears in my eyes, I finally gave her the news. I was ready to hug her, cry with her, and hold her hand. She looked at me, made a slight face and said: “That’s too bad. What’s for dinner?” 

It clearly wasn’t the end of her world. Maybe if we let our kids experience rejection once in a while, we’d realize they are more resilient than we think.

“Kids need to be able to handle disappointments; doing so helps them to prepare for real life,” New York based child psychologist Dr. Laurie Zelinger, PhD, tells Yahoo Parenting. She encourages her clients to sit down with their children and share their own experiences with failure or rejection, to listen, acknowledge their children’s feelings, and move on.

The good news is, rejection doesn’t resonate as much with toddlers because being told “no” won’t usually affect their self-esteem. For older kids who might internalize rejection personally, Zelinger recommends asking him or her calm and neutral questions such as, ‘Why do you think you didn’t make it?’ or ‘That must have really hurt your feelings.’ What’s key to remember is that rejection carries the possibility not only for growth and can also motivate kids to try harder the next time. 

I never did make the cheerleading squad. But I did find new things to love. I took theater classes, I read 1,000 books, I wrote short stories and started filming movies in my spare time. Six years after the cheerleading debacle, I was heartbroken when I failed my first driver’s test. Two weeks later, I worked harder and passed it with flying colors. 

Rejection is pain. There is no way around that. But it’s a productive kind of pain. How will our kids ever discover their true talents or learn to face adversity head on if we don’t let them? Instead of complaining and marching into principal’s offices, maybe we should consider rejection an opportunity. 

“It’s like when we were first watching them learn to walk,” says Skenazy. We’ve all been there. The terror as they let go of the table, the worries they would topple over and bang their head, the first tenuous steps, the stumbles and falls. And then they get it. They start to walk with ease. Soon, they can run. 

“We’ve all been through those feelings of sorrow and worry as our kids stumble through new skills,” says Skenazy. The only thing that makes it better is this: Look at my kid. She can handle it.”

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