Thank You, Mr. Roboto: How My Son Found His “Thing”
Polar Vortex 2019 has hit in my area, bringing single digit daytime temperatures and negative windchill factors. Because a lot of kids spend ten to fifteen minutes walking to school or waiting for the bus, most counties canceled school for two days. The first day, my kids were elated. But when the call came that a second day would be missed, something shocking and wonderful happened in my house: my school-detesting fifth grader whined in dismay.
“Aww, but we have the robotics tournament on Friday and we were supposed to practice! I want to win and go to states!”
Never, in the history of ever, has this child been unhappy about missing school. For him to be disappointed to not have to go is very much out of character for him. And granted, it’s not social studies or a spelling test that he is sad to miss; robotics is an extracurricular. But it’s still a huge deal, because the program is his only “thing”. We tried baseball. We tried jujitsu. We tried cub scouts. We suggested a musical instrument or theater. He was miserable in every activity we put him in and begged us not to make him go. And I relented, after an appropriate trial period had passed to be sure he didn’t come around. Exasperated, each time I’d tell him “I don’t care what you do, but you’re going to do SOMETHING.”
I know that team sports and other extracurricular activities are good for kids and are known to be tied to achievement- and to staying out of trouble as kids get older. And I worried that my already very moody, obstinate, disinterested-in-academics-and-everything-but-video-games oldest son was going to fall through the cracks.
Then one day in the fall of fourth grade he came home from school and told me with as much excitement as he ever musters that there was going to be a robotics program in his school. He had already shown an interest in computers and programming and this was in the same vein, so I was thrilled that he wanted to join. But there was a catch: the program was not open to everyone; the students had to write an essay explaining why they wanted to be on the team and how they thought they could contribute. I asked my son what he wrote.
“I wrote that they should pick me because I am interested in it and I would be good at it.”
My heart sank. I knew without question that this was literally what he wrote, and all he wrote. And I knew that this was not going to earn him a spot. Never mind that one’s ability to answer questions like those in written form seems irrelevant to one’s interest level or aptitude for robotics; it simply was not the kind of response that was going to impress the teacher making the selection. Even worse: the faculty member in charge of choosing the team was the gym teacher, to whom my uncoordinated and uninterested kid had not endeared himself.
Sure enough, the team was announced and he wasn’t on it. My heart broke for him and I was probably more disappointed than he was.
But it just so happened that I had been trying to schedule a meeting with his teacher and his principal to discuss his academics and his standardized testing scores. God help me, I decided to be “that mom”. Now, I was not going to storm into that meeting demanding that my little precious be given a spot on the team. I was much more subtle and dignified about it. In the midst of the discussion about my concerns for his academics (Cs and Bs, which is where he lands when he gives minimal effort), I mentioned how difficult it was to motivate him. “It’s hard to get him motivated to learn because he’s just not enthusiastic about anything,” I lamented. “The only thing he’s shown any excitement for or interest in was the robotics thing, but…” and I trailed off with a shrug and upturned palms.
“Oh,” said his really amazing principal, “did he not make the team?” I said no, and explained how written expression just isn’t his thing. She took a note and replied “hmm, let me see what we can do about that.” A few days later, my son thrust a permission slip in my face when I walked in the door: “Someone quit robotics so I got on the team!” He was beaming- well, as much as he does such a thing. In fact, his demeanor may have seemed almost matter-of-fact to the casual observer, but I knew better; it was enthusiasm I had not seen since he received his first laptop for Christmas a few years earlier. In robotics, my son had found his “thing”, an organized activity which he enjoys and in which he excels. A year later, he’s still on the team and no less enthusiastic. The only unsolicited information I get about his days at school is when he updates me on the progress of his team’s robot. On the team there are coders, builders, and drivers. “I’m a coder,” he likes to remind me.
Robotics programs are gaining in popularity these days, but it’s still a little surprising that our little hometown even offers it. It is a great intro to STEM for older elementary students, especially the computer-minded like my kid. (Digression to brag: he has, in his free time, taught himself to code by watching YouTube videos and has already made his first “video game”.)
His younger brother has a few years to go before he is old enough to try to be in the program, but he has already expressed interest. It thrills me to see my children interested in academic pursuits, and their father is just as proud. Granted, as an avid sports fan and former multi-sport high school athlete, he had hoped that at least one of his two sons would follow in his footsteps He remembers how much he and his late father bonded over their shared interest in sports. The youngest still plays baseball (badly) and basketball (even worse), and their dad never shows anything like disappointment in my son’s robotics pursuits and interest in coding.
If you are in certain Twitter circles, you may have been aware of some hub-bub a few weeks back when one popular Twitter personality tweeted from his own son’s robotics tournament about how he and the other fathers present were all depressed, thinking about how other people’s sons play football. It was a joke, and there is no reason to believe this man expressed this thought to his son, but many took offense. I would have, were I not already familiar with this man’s brand of outrage bait. (When the backlash heated up, including an entire article about it on Buzz Feed News, he doubled down. All I can say is that I hope his kid never runs across any of this.) But it made me think of my son, the worry I had that he would never find his “thing”, and how great it is to see him doing something because he wants to, not because he has to, and finding so much enjoyment in it. Not to mention the value of the activity itself. I’m not the least bit ashamed of the subtle influence I exerted in order to get him a spot. It’s actually one of my prouder parenting moments.
It is the job of parents to look for our kids’ talents and strengths and help them develop. Pushing them into something in which they have no interest almost never works out well. It can be really tricky to help them find their interest, or waiting for an interest to find them, but when it happens that way the results are as rewarding as any baseball trophy or letterman’s jacket. (More so, if we are honest; my kid has a much better chance of turning coding and robotics into a career than most kids have with sports.) Their achievements mean so much more when they are truly invested and interested in their pursuits. As a parent, the best reward is the smile on my son’s face, the enjoyment he gets from finally finding an activity he likes, and the joy of supporting him as he does it.