The kids at the local swim school know the significance of the bell being rung - someone has earned a colored ribbon!
Swim staff cheer and clap. Children beam as they wave their achievement ribbons high in the air, racing towards their parents to show off their latest swimming milestone. Parents in the viewing gallery leap to their feet, thrilled that little Johnny or Janie has moved up the colored ribbon ladder.
Even before starting our daughter, Maya, in swim class, I was aware of the individualized achievement ribbon system. Maya's cousin had quickly and joyfully brought home the rainbow, green, red, blue and purple ribbons. Today she has her eyes on the prize, focused on the remaining swimming skills she must master to complete her ribbon collection.
It struck me as a logical process and a cool incentivizing system for the kids. I remember thinking "I like the idea that each kid proceeds at their own pace, not necessarily earning ribbons at the same time."
That was before the first ribbon meltdown.
All was well at the beginning. After the first two sessions, Maya and her little swim friends earned their first rainbow ribbon in one celebratory group moment. They had mastered skills like "separation from parent without crying" and "advanced splashing" or some such newbie achievement. Had the kids really done it simultaneously? Probably not, but close enough for them to share the sweet first-ribbon success together.
Then it was reality time. In subsequent weekly sessions, the ribbon system became a truly individualized thing. Maya was doing just fine until she lost a week to illness. With just one missed class, the shift occurred. She found herself unable to do the "five up faces" that her class peers were managing. In subsequent sessions, the other kids worked on next skills while Maya still struggled with up-faces, this basic breathing strategy starting to take on a dreaded status in her mind.
And then came the week when her two classmates earned their next ribbons (ring those bells!), but Maya was not yet there.
I watched it unfold as if in slow motion. Two jubilant kids waving ribbons like flags. Bells ringing. My kid sitting expectantly in the pool, staring at her teacher, her expression morphing from excited to crushed.
She wept the whole ride home and offered these cringe-worthy statements: "I'm stupid. I'm horrible at up faces. The other kids are better." It hit me then: it may be an individualized achievement structure, but that doesn't mean kids won't compare themselves and become their own worst critic.
I took time to offer her assurances that she was doing well. I acknowledged the swim skills currently vexing her (those dang up-faces!) to honor her feelings and the real current challenge she felt. But I also reminded her that kids, like grownups, are individuals. We learn at different paces. We have different strengths and weaknesses. And that was a good thing. How boring if we were all the same.
The tears subsided, but she remained dejected. So I told her my own swim story: that I was scared taking swim lessons as a kid, that I avoided swimming (and missed out on a lot of fun) for a long time, that I didn't really learn how to swim until I was 16. I let her know that today, I may be just a so-so swimmer, but I'm a proud one, because I knew it had been a hard skill for me to learn. I was just happy that I had.
Then I let her in on a fact: I was in awe watching her dive head first into the water, something that age 53, I have still never done (I crawl into pools, slowly). This put a big smile on her face.
Bottom line, I think it's a good thing that she gets this truth: some days are ribbon and sticker days. Some days aren't. And the important thing is to just keep learning, trying, and having fun. The next time a kid in her class got a sticker and she didn't, her face still fell, but no tears this time. Progress. I'm happy.