I overheard the conversation while I was in the middle of doing something else. My son was with a group of boys his age who all happen to be on different swim teams. As they compared their stats, it became obvious that my son was the slowest. One boy couldn’t believe my son’s time.

“That’s so slow!” he said in amazement. He didn’t say it to be mean. He didn’t say it to make fun of my son, to his credit, I think he was genuinely shocked about my son’s time.

My son just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

In that moment, my heart ached for my son. I was torn between letting my son handle the situation himself or stepping in and changing the topic. Most of the time I would probably have opted for option a, trusting that he could handle it, but this time I opted for option b. I walked over to the table and brought up a different sport that my son had more confidence in and then I walked away.

It was hours before I was able to talk to my son about the incident. When I asked him how he felt about the comment he said, “I was kind of sad. But I am slow. I still didn’t really like that he said it, I guess.”

One characteristic that I have always appreciated in my son is his attitude about sports. In his mind, sports are all about having fun. He loves playing sports for fun. It’s not about winning; it’s about playing the game. He has played basketball for three years now in a league that doesn’t keep score, and he couldn’t care less. He loves to play basketball because he loves the game, not because he likes to win. Unlike me, his opinions about whether he likes a sport or not have nothing to do with how successful he is in that sport. If he likes to play it, he likes the sport.

So the fact that he is not a record-breaking swimmer does not really worry him. But being called slow by your friend is never fun. We talked as best as an 8-year-old boy and his mom can about things with the overall message being to remember how he felt in this situation so that he won’t call someone else slow if the shoe is ever on the other foot.

These are the moments in parenting that I find the most difficult. I don’t want my son to ever feel sad and yet I know that there is no way I can be there at every moment to make sure no one ever says anything to hurt his feelings. I don’t want my son to ever feel that he is not as good at something as someone else. But the truth is, there will always be someone better. There will always be someone faster, someone smarter or someone stronger. I want to shelter him from any sort of discomfort that life might throw at him. I want to stand before him and take the fall for him so that he will not feel the blow that life offers him. I want to keep him for myself where he is safe, but I am a million times more boring than what he can experienceoutin the world.

The hard part about sending your kids out into the world is that, while it can offer your children friendships, knowledge and adventure, it can also bring them heartbreak, disappointment and pain. As parents, we can create safeguards for them for a while that might protect them from life’s harsh realities, but we are doing them a great disservice if we never allow them to feel discomfort.

The best we can hope for as parents is to raise happy well-rounded kids. Kids who understand that, in the game of life, sometimes you feel like the winner and sometimes you can feel like the loser.Kids who know that they are deeply loved by God regardless of their successes or failures. I think when kids (and adults for that matter) are confident in this love from God, they are able to be bold in their actions and take risks because their self-worth is not tied to their accomplishments. When we focus on teaching kids about their value in God’s eyes, they begin to understand it doesn’t matter as much how many baskets they score in a game or if they had they highest test score in their class.

My son had a swim meet last night. He swam great. He didn’t win any top ribbons, but he beat the goal he set for himself by two seconds. He swam four seconds faster than his last time.

I wish you could have seen the smile on his face when he saw his time. He wasn’t smiling because he beat his friends; he’s still slower than most of them. He was smiling because he did something he didn’t think he could do. He was so proud of himself. I was proud too.

I wouldn’t trade that smile for a thousand first-place ribbons.

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