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Pushing Limits, Patience, and Protecting the Kids

As I wrote in this month’s article in Triathlete Magazine, I have two amazing, wonderful children–who could not be more different.

They had their second ever triathlon this past weekend.


Stella (age 7) jumped out of bed at 4:45am, with her little warm face pressed up against mine, whispering, “Mom, mom, mom. I am so excited.”

James (age 8) – a/k/a Captain Careful – rolled over and groaned, “Oh no. Not a triathlon.”

So no, despite my triathlon obsession, I actually don’t make them do these things.


I ask them both very extensively before I pay the registration fees–do you want to do the triathlon?

Every answer (from both) is a vibrant, excited nod… until the race day gets closer. Stella gets more excited and cocky–in a good way–“Mom, I’m going to win.”  Then, Captain Careful worries more and more.  But that’s his personality, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree–I was so the same way at his age. Still am, sorta.

Even as we practiced transitions in the living room the night before the race, their personalities began to shine. Stella raced excitedly through practice and wanted more.  James refused to put on his shoes and threw on his helmet with the attitude of someone headed into a colonoscopy. I really didn’t know what would come of the race–I really just wanted them to have fun and like to be active–really that’s all.  The Expert and I don’t make them race–but we do make them start what they finish. And do what they say.

And James started this one, so he was in it–like it or not.

(He apparently did not like it, according to his attitude.)


Anyone who has followed this blog or my former, now-dead, parenting blog knows that our oldest kiddo, James, is “famous” for refusing to smile and being generally a kid with a defiant personality. He’s the most precious, sweetest and smartest boy–who happens to have a side of ODD (oppositional defiance disorder).  We had the ODD under pretty good therapy and control for years—but in recent times, it’s rearing a new-stage (which is growing as he grows) and we are working on new tools in parenting. #alwaysanadventure  (The Expert noticed it most recently during baseball when he just refused to cover second base when he played second base. Or home plate when he was catcher.  Not because he didn’t understand–but because he didn’t want to.  Oh those are fun times.)

So anyway – seeing the triathlon coming up and the dear, sweet boy’s apprehension—I really expected (and braced myself for), the starting buzzer to go off–and for him to stand there, refusing to get into the water and staring at me with serial killer eyes, like “Mom, I hate you and I hate triathlon.”  I was ready for it. I almost expected it.


As someone who is not a trained therapist and who was raised to get a Southern-style ass-whooping whenever even a moment of defiance showed up, it’s been a challenge to frame my thinking as a parent of a kiddo like James.  Now, when our son acts up–I have to look and see that the problem is with ME–not the kid. With ODD, it’s the way you talk and interact with a child that matters regarding behaviors. And of course, it’s the easy way out to just demand they comply with your will– (and you’ll also have a bloodbath on your hands)–but it takes a patient and thoughtful parent to try and work through this stuff, and change behaviors for good–not just temporarily.

And hello– I am not sure I am either patient OR thoughtful–but I try to be. #goals

So on race morning, with the early bird wake-up call, this was Stella:


And this was James:


It was not off to a good start for my little buddy.

But we were in it–and it was happening.  We attended the Georgia Peach Kids triathlon–a fantastic, USAT-sanctioned youth triathlon by Georgia Multisports.  A great event put on by Jim Rainey and company, and full of all sorts of kiddos–and parents (another blog for another day…wowzers).


James was in the intermediate age group (ages 9-11), and as they waited for the older kids to go, I could sense his nerves.


And Stella was more and more excited, leading a warm-up of jumping jacks on the pool deck.


As James went down on the pool deck to get ready for his wave, I was nervous. I’ll give you that.  Even last week when we went to the pool to practice, he refused to swim freestyle- saying that he was going to dolphin dive the entire 100 yards.  This is where he floats down to the bottom of the pool and pushes off from the bottom.  (He knows how to freestyle, just doesn’t want to. Again.)

The Expert told him that they might rescue him from the pool if he did that, thinking he was drowning.

Still, I really just expected him to do what he wanted–there are no guarantees when the defiance shows up. And really, this situation was prime for it.

As he lined up, our neighbor had brought her kiddos to watch.  James looked up and saw his little friend, and this is what I saw:


A happy dance? What?!

And this?  Is this a smile?


As he jumped into the water, he immediately went into freestyle.  No dolphin kicking or diving or whatever.  He just swam. He’s not a super strong swimmer, but he did amazing for 100 yards – resting on the ropes a few times – yet, gathering himself together and getting right out of the water.


As he took off on the bike, I was so happy for him… I just knew what a victory that was internally for him.  He was awesome!


It was barely a blink and he was off on the bike.

…And it was barely a blink and he was BACK from the three mile ride.



Wow – that was fast, I thought.

And it was. Because he missed the second loop.  ACK!

I totally wasn’t thinking as I cheered him out on the run, as the Expert comes flying down the hill, shouting and gesturing to me to grab James before he leaves transition… “He missed the second loop. He only did one loop. I was hollering at him, but he didn’t hear me.  He’s going to DQ.”

I looked, and he was out on the run.  Too late.


Immediately, I thought, “Shit.”  Not because of anything other than–man, that’s not what he needed.  He needed a positive experience. He was out there giving it his best, and he didn’t need to get kicked down for it.

[And I certainly didn’t need a reputation as raising a course cutting athlete. 🙂 Ha!]

So, the Expert went over and told the race officials as James went out on the run.

As James finished nice and strong with a wonderful run, he was so proud of himself.  I was SO proud of him. Look at this smile.


The Expert and I decided not to say anything to him (this time) about missing the second bike loop.

It was our fault for not educating him properly that he needed to do two loops. It’s our fault that we didn’t let him know to be more aware of the volunteers shouting instructions, etc.  It was a learning experience (for us, as tri parents) that did NOT need to take away from his victory–at all.


He doesn’t have an official time.  But honestly, he doesn’t know and he won’t know (at least until he’s older and reads this race report… but by then, he’ll have many other victories and it won’t matter–right? Right… that’s my story.)

The fact that he went out there and seriously gave it his all–I was so stinking proud.  He did so amazing.  So so proud.

Next up, was Stella girl.  Eager and ready to rock.  And she did.


She hit the water with a take-no-prisoners attitude, right on to her third place podium finish.

We need to work on her transitions–she took a picnic in T1, but otherwise, girl was so fast and happy. The joy on her face was amazing.


And this running form? Are you kidding me?


We didn’t stay for the awards, and only found out later that she placed third.

Neither James nor Stella was focused on first, second or third place–they know they got a medal, a t-shirt, and they were happy. They didn’t even ask who won–because in their minds, they did what they came to do–and that was it.


Still, this was a tricky one for me…

Because Stella certainly deserved to celebrate her third place victory.

But James also deserved to celebrate his effort and giving his all out there, especially when I knew what a challenge it was for him, fighting his inner negative nelly.


And the Expert and I didn’t know how to allow both to happen without some sort of damage to the other kiddo.  And yes, I get it… life isn’t fair and all of that. But I don’t think there was a valuable lesson for EITHER of them in having Stella awarded a third place with James making a mistake on the course–a mistake that was arguably our fault, too.


There’s a time and place to crush hopes and dreams–life will do that to you eventually anyway, in some shape or form. And while I am certainly not a helicopter parent who tries to protect my kids from hurts and everything under the sun, I do think that we could do good here–and keep it simple. Why not protect them in this situation? I don’t know….

So we kept it as “everyone did their best” and “everyone finished and did amazing” and now “let’s eat pancakes.”  Not sure if this was a parenting win or fail–but it’s the best we knew to do at the time.

As quickly as James’ joy was present, we have photographic proof that he is a stinker.


I love them.

Gosh, I love these kids with all of my heart and soul. I love them for their strengths, their weaknesses, their courage and their joy.  I couldn’t have asked for a better day.  They are so very BRAVE!  Man.  (Mom brag alert.)

At dinner each night, the Expert and I ask the kids “High/Low” – which was totally shamelessly stolen from the movie, “Story of Us” where the Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis characters ask the kids at the dinner table to share their “high” of the day and their “low.”

When it was my turn last night, I said, “My high today is watching you both swim, bike and run.  Just being there and watching you do such amazing things. And trying your best. That is my high.”


And it really was my high for the day–and maybe, just maybe, the entire year.


Just wondering… would you all have handled this situation differently?  Knowing the circumstances of James and our behavior struggles? Did we do okay, in your opinion… just would like to get your thoughts… xoxo



  • Sarah

    June 13, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    I think you did awesome! My son is totally the same way. Maybe it is a boy thing? It was an accident and nothing would have been gained by letting him know. If you could have stopped him before he got off the bike then sure, send him for the second loop. Given the circumstances I can only hope that I would have handled it as gracefully! It also helps that there was no other crazy parent screaming that your child didn’t do the second loop:-) I love when my kids race and it’s nice to remember that it is just for fun.

  • Lindsay Hoage

    June 13, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t have kids so I don’t know how much my opinion counts, but I had happy tears in my eyes reading this. It really resonated with me. I think its so great that the kids went out and gave it their all and had a great time. And in my opinion, if they weren’t even aware of “places” in the first place, then nothing was lost. It sounds like they had a great experience, especially James. If it were me, I’d call it a parenting win, 100%. I don’t think this is a case of over protection or helicopter parenting or whatever its called, but rather a focus on whats important – having active children who are out there swimming, riding their bike, and running. I cant think of anything better! I think us adults get a little too caught up in the podium and placement hype, and forget that everyone – slow or fast – is out there doing the same thing. Kids this age have all sorts of challenges to face that will try their self-image and self-esteem. Having parents who do everything to support a positive self-image is a big thing for a kid. I think a lot of parents would have said in the first place “oh James you don’t want to do it – OK you don’t have to.”Instead you ensured that he went through with something he committed to and supported him in his finish and ensured that he focused on what was important. <3

  • Lea

    June 13, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Even without knowing the whole story of your struggles with hiss behaviors, I think that was an appropriate way to handle him only doing one bike loop. Yes, there is a learning opportunity for better prepping him advance to understand about repeated loops, but in the moment, knowing he had already exited T2 and couldn’t just go back to do the loop he missed, it was better to let him run and push through the last leg of his race than it would have been to waylay him and pull him from the run for failing to do the second bike lap. That would have crushed his enthusiasm and taught him that what he had just done on the bike wasn’t good enough, that he had already failed. And I also think it’s fine to let Stella stick with knowing she “won” because she tried hard and had a good time. Yes, she did unknowingly reach the podium, but if she wasn’t in it for the podium then letting her leave the race none the wiser isn’t stealing something that she knew she wanted.

  • Amy

    June 13, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I probably would have done the same thing but I will also share with you what I’ve learned about the blessing of the dq in watching my kids swim. My kids swim in a swim team – getting a dq happens to everyone at some point. The first time my daughter got a dq in 50 breast for not using a 2-hand touch at the wall she was devestated. It was super hard as a parent. But she had to go on and do the next event, and when her friends asked why she was so distraught they all shared their stories of dq’s. And even at 9 years old I watched as she learned a huge life lesson that mistakes happen to everybody and then we move on. A swim meet was a super safe space to learn that lesson.

    That being said a swim meet is different from a tri because you only get one shot.

    • Swim Bike Mom

      June 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      Excellent perspective too. I agree that in a situation where it would be repeatable, yes – totally. I mean, in baseball, he had LOTS of teachable “failure” moments – so it’s not like he’s been immune from them. This one, though, being such a one-time shot for now and being individual was the struggle. But I love your perspective here!

  • HokieKate

    June 13, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    “Did we do okay, in your opinion”? Nobody knows your kid better than you do! You did your best, and you did well. I don’t know what I would have done. My kids are 4 and 2; their cognitive abilities are different.

    • Swim Bike Mom

      June 13, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      Oh I know that… and I am the first to tell people it’s none of their business how I raise my kids… BUT, in this circumstance, I wanted to know what people thought… because many of us have tri-ing and athletic kids. I wanted to crowd source to see if there are any things I didn’t consider. 🙂

  • Danielle

    June 13, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Hi Merideth – long time reader and first time commenter! I had to chime in here even though I do not have kids and honestly have no idea what it is like to raise a child like your son. I will be the first to admit that! I think, given the circumstances of this particular scenario, you probably did the right thing with your kids, especially given that your daughter did not know about the awards/podium, etc. While I don’t know anything about raising kids, I know a lot about being an overachieving girl with a brother who struggled mightily in school and everything else in his childhood for a variety of reasons. My parents were so focused on making sure that my brother was built up, felt good about himself, and was never made to feel “stupid” that what ended up happening was that my accomplishments were constantly downplayed or ignored in the name of not making my brother feel bad. As a 30-year old adult, I DO get why they did that, and I’m sure it was a tough choice for them to make, but it deeply affected how I felt about myself and the things I have achieved. To this day, I am constantly seeking ways to prove myself and get that attention from them that I never got as a child because they were too worried about hurting my brother’s feelings. Just food for thought. Please be careful not to push your daughter’s achievements aside just because she doesn’t seem to “need” as much encouragement – she might need it more than you think.

    • Swim Bike Mom

      June 13, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Yes! Thank you for this.. this is a big concern!! I know that we have to let her have the wins for sure – so thanks for this input. The struggle I have too – is that James TOTALLY has these same “wins” in him—he’s just getting in his own way and immediately spirals. He’s UBER smart and that’s where he excels, but likes to fly under the radar and get bad grades “just because” . So he has big accomplishments too – I just wonder how to balance all of them AND keep him positive. He just gets so DOWN on himself and in his attitude… that’s what I was trying to avoid by mentioning the course cutting (unintentional of course). I thought about saying that Stella got third place, BUT James now has “no place” – so what do we say to that… And if we brought up that Stella got third – he would sink to the bottom. I know I can’t protect him forever… but in this case… I felt like it was right. But how can we ever be sure!! 🙂
      BUT – thank you for this, and I will def keep it in mind.

  • Julie G.

    June 13, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Bravo Mama! I think of it kind of like how each of us adults are on our own journey with triathlon. Some of us strive for a podium finish at each race, some of us just want to cross that finish line. What is one person’s PR is the next person’s easy day. It appears James hit his stride and truly enjoyed the day, and you let him have that. Stella already internally felt so proud of her accomplishments, more wasn’t needed from you as parents. A similar thing happened to us when my daughter (now 11) ran her first 5K almost 2 years ago. It was a 3 loop course and it was a bit confusing when we were suppose to go in to finish. As parents, we should have known it wasn’t a full 3.1 miles (I was wearing my Garmin for crying out loud!) but the volunteers were ushering us into the finish chute, so we went! We never did tell my daughter that she really only ran 2.4 miles that night….to her, it was her first 5K and she was so proud! This past weekend she did a kid’s tri where the volunteers didn’t tell the kids where to go on the bike and her and 4 others ended up with a shorter bike course, thus being eliminated from the podium awards. In this case she was upset because she would have placed had she done the whole course. My point being…..there’s also plenty of time for the kiddos to become more and more competitive! 🙂 As parents, we do the best that we know how to do and when we know better, we do better (I think you made the right decision this time!) 🙂

  • Stephanie

    June 13, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    hmmm…. Ok.. here’s the thing. They both know that they are not competing against each other right?

    I think it’s fair to let Stella celebrate her victory. You can HONESTLY say that you don’t know where James placed in his group but that you know he did REALLY REALLY well because he was just so blazing fast and keep him celebrating HIS victory of finishing that sucker because we all know it’s hard to do triathlon.

    Are you likely to have a meltdown? well it COULD happen. For all that you COULD tell him that he placed in a certain rank and that it wasn’t that low- again how’s he gonna know, really?? I don’t think it’s going to ruin life if he finds out that Stella did really well against the other girls that were her age. And this is where it’s important to point out that EVERYONE is in a different age group and sex category before he gets all down because he didn’t “place”. (you can also remind him that he was still faster than his sister if that’s REALLY a point of contention.)

    And finally, I TOTALLY get all the things before that you said about wanting to protect him and I appreciate all of those. I had a HUGE problem with FOF(Fear of Failure) as a kid his age. It was incredibly difficult for me because anything less than ‘perfect’ meant I failed. we won’t go into all of that but what I want to bring up was that I took piano for about a year. I LOVED piano. What’s more is that they had found a way to motivate everyone to do their ‘homework’ by awarding stickers. One day, despite my hard work I knew that I couldn’t earn the sticker because I just had NOT gotten the lesson down pat. know what I did? I quit. My mom let me quit. I regret that even now some 35 years later. No one pointed out that I could recover from a failure. They just let me believe (well because they impressed this on me) that failure was permanent. It took me years to figure out that it was ok to fail and get back up and start again.

    James has parents that show him that it’s ok to fail and get back up.I know that ODD is hard but I would encourage you to think about facing it head on. Maybe by talking to him about how proud he is of what he did and going from there?

    THAT is just my two cents worth and nothing more. I would say leave my suggestions in the garbage can if they don’t sound right.

    It’s never easy raising kiddos.

    VERY personal question, love, is James in any sort of therapy and are you with him at those sessions? (they have sessions where the therapist helps by watching and coaching you in your ear)

  • Dawn

    June 13, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    “A father said to his son…be careful where you walk. The son said to his father, “No, YOU be careful where you walk, for I am following in your footsteps.” Your children are so lucky to have yours to follow, and that you are taking such great care with where you tread, and asking for help along the way. You done good, SBM!!! So stinkin’ proud of your youngins!

  • SoAnyway

    June 14, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I had issues similar to James’ with my school work. My mother was careful to make sure that I didn’t feel like my failure to achieve outstanding grades meant that I wasn’t smart. This was good as far as it went (I’ve always known I’m pretty bright), but in retrospect I think it would have been better to emphasize that grades are a result of effort rather than innate intelligence, and that poor effort was not acceptable. Trying and failing is fine, but not trying is a serious disappointment. I don’t know how to convey that kind of message in an ODD context, but I think that’s the really critical takeaway from the “grades” portion of school work.

    That aside, I think that you handled this particular weekend’s events very well. I think being mindful of James’ fragility in this context and nurturing his good feeling about the outcome was a kind and constructive thing to do. Given Stella’s enthusiasm I expect she’ll have many more of these kinds of successes to celebrate.

  • Liz

    June 15, 2016 at 9:55 am

    I have to tell you I was excited to see James smiling in his pictures. Not a parent but I would have acknowledged and celebrated both victories.
    I would have also told him that Mom and Dad made a mistake by forgetting to teach him he had to do two laps. That was on you two and you take responsibility for your error.
    Teachable moment would be about making mistakes is okay.
    Wouldn’t other kids notice anyway? It would be way worse if he found out from peers.
    More importantly though, is the fact that it’s only when he saw his friend that he got excited- does he have any friends to race with. Makes a huge difference to some kids to have friends to compete with
    I love seeing the pictures of your kids out having fun and racing, that as a family you can race but you also balance that with all the other things that you do together.

    • Swim Bike Mom

      June 15, 2016 at 10:59 am

      Thanks Liz… Actually, he didnt’ have any tri friends there, so that risk was abated. And the careful thing about kids – is that you never want to crush their spirit. I think James in this situation and knowing his struggles – would have been an opportunity to crush him. Yes we messed up as parents (re: the two loop thing), BUT we do that all the time and admit it all the time…. so I just don’t think in a situation that was perceived as being a victory for him, that we should have dragged him down ESPECIALLY when it wasn’t necessary. Also, we did report to the race officials – so there’s no room for “cheating” etc… we were on the up and up as far as the race goes… Anyway, I think there will be plenty times in life to have the lessons – I didn’t feel like this was a teachable moment in that regard. Again, could be wrong – but that was my thinking…

  • Runner

    June 15, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Oh boy – we also have a James who is so like this. He’s also 9. 2 years ago he stood on the start line of a local race, with a group of kids he runs with every week. And he refused to race – because he didn’t want to have everyone watching him. After the kids had all finished, he went out and ran that mile on his own, because he still wanted to run but just didn’t want to race. Fast forward 12 months (to last summer) and my husband took both kiddos (daughter who is 10) to the same race. He told our James he could race if he wanted to, but it was totally his deal. Wished both kids good luck and walked to the midway point. When the gun went off, he looked up and there was James racing his heart out. He came 2nd. Fast forward to this year and he’s now running with a competitive team, along with his sister. You did the right thing – these kiddos need to take their successes. The moral of our story (which isn’t over yet by any stretch) is that time and space gave our son the confidence to do more and more. As to your daughter’s success – that is a tough one and I agree with the comments above that we need to be careful not to focus so much energy on the ‘needy’ child to the detriment of the other. But at the end of the day, you can only do what you think is right at that particular moment in time. I’d have done the same as you.

    • Swim Bike Mom

      June 15, 2016 at 11:00 am

      Oh thank you – this is so encouraging. This is my hope for him… i know he has it “in him” – if he can get out of his own way – you know, tasting the success, and then thriving off of that feeling. 🙂


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