A Very Public Failure for My Daughter

Yesterday, Barnes and Noble slates my daughter to perform a piano piece as part of a fundraiser for the Music Academy.  Neighbors come, cameras focus, and parents beam.

But when it is her turn to perform, my daughter bursts into tears and freezes.  She cannot even approach the piano.

Instead of forcing her onto the piano bench, we gather up her blue puffy coat and the sheet music in her red tote bag and travel home as fast as we can.  

She slumps into the house and says over and over again, “I couldn’t do it!”  She cries and falls onto the couch.  She writes apology notes to the neighbors and her piano teacher. 

And then something beautiful happens.  The neighbors send messages that they went to the event to support her, and it didn’t matter whether she performed or not.  She could turn away from a thousand stages, and they’d still come every time.  My daughter, not her performance, mattered. 

Her piano teacher calls to tell her that learning the piano isn’t about performance.  She tells my daughter that she can choose when, if, and why she wants to perform at all.  Learning the piano has intrinsic value as an end in itself.  The goal was never public applause, flashing camera bulbs, and bragging parents.

Nobody is disappointed. 

My daughter nods with understanding.  She wipes her face and remembers that she loves to make music.   And I remember the gospel truth with every comforting phone call:  it was never about performance.  God’s love and favor are never dependent on my good performances.  The sooner children learn this, the more they might relax into the freedom that comes with being unconditionally loved, accepted, and valued.

I ask my daughter for permission to tell her story.  She says, “Sure, Mom!”  It doesn’t bother her anymore.  She knows now that it’s never about performance.  And it isn’t a public failure after all. 

Journal:  Am I tempted to believe my worth is in my performance?

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  1. Wonderfully touching and a good affirmation. Good for you as parents for protecting her as she dealt with her feelings, and good for those outside the family for reaching out to make sure your daughter knows that they, too, truly value her for herself. “It doesn't bother her anymore” precisely because all of you did those things. The outcome could easily have been so different and echoed down her life as a negative – which it should never be! Thank you for a wonderful post.

  2. Heather:
    I have been “stalking” your blog for a couple of weeks, but today I had no choice but to comment!

    I have been, since I was a little girl, someone who thought it was my performance that made me acceptable.

    I am just NOW, at age 49 (and holding:) realizing that I need to separate my WHO from my DO. I am just now learning who I really am in Christ!

    I want to commend you, as a parent, for teaching your daughter this very valuable lesson at an early age!

    God's Blessings,
    Denise V.

  3. How wonderful that your daughter's “support system” let her know that they support HER – no matter what! I'm glad she agreed to let you share the story.


  4. So powerful. Both of your daughters are beautiful and wonderful creatures exactly the way they are. Sometimes you just gotta let the music fill you up and pour out of ya, but sometimes it just wants to lie still within. And that's okay too. Very nice entry

  5. Wow, such an encouragement to your daughter, such a learning experience for us all. All too often I am tempted to find my worth in my performance. Those calls from friends were like the voice of God to me: it was never about the performance.

  6. As a former Olympian, who publicly “failed” on national television, now raising two daughters, this post resonates on so many ways. Thanks for sharing.

  7. even my all time favorite pianist, glenn gould, was terrifed of playing in public and absolutely hated it. i'm definitely with you– its not all about performance!

  8. I just recently “found” your blog and so many of your posts resonate with me. As a pianist myself and the mother of a son who plays piano, I can relate to this so much. He would rather not perform most of the time. And I keep saying I just want him to enjoy music. This was reassurance that I'm on the right track. Thank you.

  9. Wow, I followed you here from your comment on the NYT's article on self-compassion and this is such a wonderful story. As someone who loves to perform in front of others and is talented at I don't think I even realized how much I equate my self worth with how “good” or effective my performance is until reading this. What a great life experience for your daughter, I've learned a lot from reading about how you as a parent and your daughter's entire community reacted to her inability to perform in that moment. Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. Your child failed, and so did you.

    Performing under pressure is one of the best lessons that life teaches – if she can't rise to the challnege and give your best when it really counts, her life will be full of failure.

    America as a nation needs to stop coddling kids, or we'll have a nation of losers. Failure is a great teacher, but you have to confront it and not make excuses.

    Living with flair is about performing and getting the job done.

  11. I agree. Your child failed and you failed to teach a life lesson by coddling her. Kids have to know it's not all roses and rainbows. Sometimes we have to step up and own our failures, not be shielded from the consequences.

  12. Sally and anonymous hopefully do not have children. The child knew she failed already. Having the parent beat her up for it wouldn't change that. The child needs to know that she's loved whether she rises to any particular challenge or not.

    Pushing a child to do something they aren't ready to do will most likely turn the off of doing it at all in the future. How silly to make the child hate piano perhaps and quit just because she wasn't able to perform in public yet. Some people don't like to perform in public. That doesn't mean that they can't make a joyful noise!

  13. It's funny that I just read this blog entry today. Not an hour before, I heard a Mozart piece that I played–and flubbed–at a piano recital when I was fourteen. I can't hear that piece now without thinking of my failure. It's a shame, too, because I loved it once. I don't want that lingering self-loathing for your daughter, and I am hopeful that you were able to reclaim and reshape that happening for her. What a great way to re-define the whole purpose of a recital and restore her confidence. Brava!

  14. great reminder. it's my son's guitar recital on Saturday. He's been working really hard…and it's so true that our significance does not lie in our performance but in who we are in Christ! so, whether my boy misses out on a note or two as he plucks the strings…i would still let him know that we love him just the same!