Helping children cope with adversity
December 4, 2011 12:01 PM   Subscribe

I need help supporting my daughter who is upset following a stranger than life moment. I want to learn about famous people who were perhaps looked over when they were younger but then went on to do amazing things for humanity. I'd also be interested in hearing stories that are closer to everyday life if you ever felt you were ripped off when you were younger and now you have been able to use that experience and overcome adversity.

My daughter (middle school) had a bit of a devastating moment at the regional science fair yesterday when her project didn't make it to nationals and a different one that was very simple did go on. She had received the highest mark ever given at the local competition and had something very novel. She didn't get any feedback as to why another one was selected and there were several dropped jaws. It doesn't matter about the other projects and I don't need to know about how science projects are judged. The kid that is moving on also happens to be a bully and has tormented her. What I need is for my daughter to move on confidently understanding that these things all work out in the end - but you know - it sounds so dismissive when you say that and I really do understand the upset she is feeling. She is the kid who is kind to everyone and avoids being part of any one crowd. She has been rewarded by her school for a couple of years running with the award called "Respect, Responsibility and Reaching Out". As an adult of course we all know this is a much bigger deal than a prize in a science fair - however kids don't really understand that. I know that she will be successful as she grows as she is smart, kind, respectful and has a huge heart (she also happens to be beautiful and athletic)- I just need some help trying to support her in moving forward.
posted by YukonQuirm to Human Relations (37 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
When my son went through something very similar I simply said something to the effect that the other kid needed it more. As the years rolled by the truth of that statement proved itself.

Your daughter will be stronger for this in the long run and she is not too young to understand the concept.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:09 PM on December 4, 2011 [15 favorites]

It seems as if life has gone pretty much her way up to now. This is a teaching moment: life is very much unfair most of the time and the mature human (be she a child or an adult), recognizes this fact and continues working.
posted by francesca too at 12:12 PM on December 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The lesson isn't things that always work out in the end. The lesson is sometimes things don't work out in the end, even if they should have, and you need to be able to move forward.
posted by Jairus at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2011 [80 favorites]

Best answer: I would try a bit of a left of centre approach. Did she have any help from local scientists on the project? If not, try and get in contact with someone from a local research institute to see if they can help mentor her, and perhaps move her project forward. It doesn't have to be a professor, but maybe there would be a PhD student or post-doc in a similar field who could help? If your daughter loves science and wants to continue with it, I think focusing on how she *can* keep going, and extend her project would be the best thing to give her confidence. Show her that it is her own curiosity and passion that drives scientific research, not the quest for a prize.
posted by unlaced at 12:16 PM on December 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

Sometimes in life things happen to us that seem really unfair, and we will want to know why it happened like it did, so we can make sense of it. But sometimes those expanations never come. Life doesn't always explain itself to us. So your daughter will just have to look at all the hard work and learning she put into that project and take that as her prize, and be proud of herself. If she continues to work hard like that, other prizes will come.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:20 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is a prime opportunity for emphasizing that what's really important is her effort and trying her best, rather than the end result and winning/being the best. Kids who grow up focused on the end result will learn that even if they try their best, and they don't win (because there's always going to be someone better at something), then their effort is worthless. Help her change that point of view now.
posted by so_gracefully at 12:21 PM on December 4, 2011 [10 favorites]

Everything someone experiences, whether at their own hand or another person's, helps shape who they become. Setbacks can set you back, or they can propel you forward.

Perhaps you can engage her in a discussion about how this will change her. The experience might give her empathy for others who lose out on something they really wanted, or maybe it will make her all the more determined to win next year. Maybe she'll realize that competition isn't her cup of tea because it hurts the losers far more than it boosts the winners.

There are lots of possible reactions she could have that will impact her future in some way. If you can get her to explore those possibilities, perhaps even draw some conclusions, she'll be well on her way to living her life from choice and decision, rather than reacting to what other people value and expect.
posted by DrGail at 12:22 PM on December 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Check your MeMail.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 12:25 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe the lesson is as long as we do the things we do because they stimulate us intellectually (it's fun, it's a passion, etc), what other people think about us or how they judge our work is not that important.

Example: countless of brilliant but underappreciated scientists who eventually became recognized as groundbreaking thinkers. They had their passion and drive to help them preserve all kinds of setbacks and injustice.

How to practice this: ask your daughter to stop and ask why she's doing stuff and what she's getting out of doing them beyond validation/praise from others. If she's doing it because it's fun or she's passionate about it, then does it really matter what others think? Probably not.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 12:27 PM on December 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

You can't win 'em all, so let's win three more and not look back.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:30 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Innovation isn't always recognized, as people tend to be attuned to the things that they expect to see. As someone who is working on the boundaries of my own professional domain, I often encounter a lack of understanding in getting my work accepted. As a result, I have learned to break my ideas into smaller chunks and to dumb them down for others. But it has made me more understanding of how people think and able to make my work more accessible. Most people are not systemic thinkers - they don't understand the connections between elements of a situation. That may explain why the simpler project won over hers. But it is systemic thinkers who change the world, because they are the innovators. The "point thinkers" just become worker ants.

Perhaps your daughter did not explain her project in a way that made sense to the judges, who were unfamiliar with her conceptual basis. Perhaps she needs to learn to break her ideas into smaller steps - to dumb them down a bit. But she also needs to learn that this is accommodating their limitations, not hers.

If it's any comfort, Einstein's school work was consistently criticized as not being up to standard and he dropped out of school as a result. It took him years to get his theories even considered by his "peers." But who remembers them now?
posted by Susurration at 12:34 PM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Michael Jordan famously failed to make his high school varsity team when he was a Sophomore.

He did alright.
posted by Bonzai at 12:48 PM on December 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

Focus on building a growth mindset in her (read "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids" by Carol Dweck.). You definitely don't want her to start thinking that good scores=smart because then if she starts getting poor scores (or disappointing to her scores... not even poor marks) she may think that means she isn't smart. One way to help her examine her own effort is to get a copy of the scoring guide/rubric (if possible) and examine her project as objectively as possible. Ask her to consider what she could do to improve her project if she ever wanted to build on it.
posted by adorap0621 at 12:50 PM on December 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: She has been rewarded by her school for a couple of years running with the award called "Respect, Responsibility and Reaching Out". As an adult of course we all know this is a much bigger deal than a prize in a science fair

Well... I disagree with you there.

But one thing you can point out is that this guy is going to get smacked down on the national level even if he inexplicably squeaked by in the regionals. But the more important thing is to point out that what's really important when it comes to doing science is not what someone thinks of a middle school science fair. If she wants to go on with this, the important thing is to work with scientists and her science teachers, where this other winner/bully will not actually be taken as seriously as she is.

While things don't always work out in the end, what does happen is that frauds and flakes might see temporary successes, but the lack of solid foundation behind what they do will get found out. This guy was able to coast through the regionals, but he'll get nailed in the nationals. Meanwhile, your daughter's strong foundations in science will pay dividends for what really counts: things like getting good projects in high school, getting admitted to science programs, and getting admitted to college.

It's not that there are examples of people who got looked over and then went on to do great things-- there's a bit of confirmation bias there: there are for more people who got looked over and continued to get looked over. What's important is that even brilliant and great people fail and have to try again. Steve Jobs was sidelined and effectively fired from Apple. Even his following project, NeXT, didn't make any big fortunes for anyone.
posted by deanc at 1:10 PM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

While focused on business, this article might give you a few nuggets to help her look at the big picture.
posted by timsteil at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2011

Best answer: What do you mean, these things all work out at the end? No they don't. Bully Kid's project is going to nationals and your daughter's is not. I'm not sure what kind of karmic balancing act you think is going to take place next. It isn't fair and it isn't going to magically work out.

So the lesson here is that sometimes life is unfair and crappy things happen and they SUCK. And that while it's okay to be angry about that, you have to keep trying because sometimes you get knocked back but sometimes, you get ahead.

Also that regardless of how her project did, you and her dad are really, really proud of her and looking forward to what she can do next year.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:18 PM on December 4, 2011 [16 favorites]

her project didn't make it to nationals and a different one that was very simple did go on. She had received the highest mark ever given at the local competition and had something very novel.

I can't really tell what is going on from the description and it is entirely possible that the following anecdote is not applicable (actually, it looks like maybe there was no regionals phase in your process?). When I was a freshman in high school, my science fair project won the locals, but did terribly at the regionals. It was flashy and impressive, used computer modeling at a time when no one even knew what that was, and in a way maybe did deserve to do so well at the locals. Why did it do so badly at the next stage? In retrospect, as someone who is now a scientist, it is completely obvious. First of all, I did a terrible job explaining the (very complicated) project to the judges; I was basically just expecting to coast by as before. Simplicity can be an asset here. The shortcoming of my project, and they were substantial, were transparent to the much more qualified regional judges in a way that the people at my high school were simply not equipped to judge. I hadn't done adequate research, and needed to have read more literature relevant to my project; my modeling, while flashy and involving unusual (at the time) programming skills, had little science behind it and was based on premises that were in large part simply made up. Etc. Basically, when moving out of a small pond into a bigger pond, my project was evaluated much more realistically.

I'm not saying that any of this applies to your daughter. But I did want to provide a counterpoint to all the (good) positivity in this thread. It is possible that the project that did win was in fact better in ways that you do not appreciate, but the judges did.

In retrospect this was a formative experience for me. Quite possibly every new stage in your daughter's for the next 10-15 years will involve moving from a smaller pond to a larger one. She will not succeed at everything, and will have to figure out how to deal with that. If she does go on to become a scientist, she will be faced with the fact that many very, very good grant proposals do not get funding, ones that in a fair and ideal world certainly deserve it. At least on the scale of individual projects, things don't necessarily work out in the end, and if she is interested in science, this is something she will eventually have to come to terms with; all you can do sometimes is be persistent. I personally think that there isn't much that you can do as a parent beyond being supportive and encourage her to do science fair again next year, and try to help her work through this situation.
posted by advil at 1:18 PM on December 4, 2011 [17 favorites]

50 famous people who overcame initial setbacks

A couple of excerpts that seemed to show that those responsible for making judgments can miss great things right in front of them:

4. Soichiro Honda: The billion-dollar business that is Honda began with a series of failures and fortunate turns of luck. Honda was turned down by Toyota Motor Corporation for a job after interviewing for a job as an engineer, leaving him jobless for quite some time. He started making scooters of his own at home, and spurred on by his neighbors, finally started his own business.

45. The Beatles: Few people can deny the lasting power of this super group, still popular with listeners around the world today. Yet when they were just starting out, a recording company told them no. They were told “we don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” two things the rest of the world couldn’t have disagreed with more.
posted by forforf at 1:23 PM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might help to let her know that even some of the most brilliant minds have had a hard time at the beginnings of their careers (i.e. Einstein) or had work go unrecognized or overlooked (i.e. Tesla or Scheele). It happens to the best of us. The universe can be so fickle and cruel!
posted by two lights above the sea at 1:30 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dittoing what advil says above: If she does go on to become a scientist, she will be faced with the fact that many very, very good grant proposals do not get funding, ones that in a fair and ideal world certainly deserve it. At least on the scale of individual projects, things don't necessarily work out in the end, and if she is interested in science, this is something she will eventually have to come to terms with; all you can do sometimes is be persistent.

She's probably not going to be a superstar scientist like Einstein or Tesla. But that's okay! There are a lot of scientists who do good or even great work who are well known in their fields but unknown elsewhere. You really have to be stubborn to be a scientist.

My personal story (not very exciting, sorry) is that I applied for a national grant at the same time as my lab mate. She had better marks than me and probably a better proposal. She got the money and the prestige of having this award. I had other, lesser funding through my school. By the end of our degree, she couldn't talk to our supervisor without crying and almost timed out of her degree (i.e. you could only stay in school for 7 years 'working' on your MSc before they forced you out, without a degree). I, on the other hand, went on to do my PhD. I am a much better scientist than her. I still don't get awards but I'm stubborn and I know that I'm good at what I want to do. I just keep working.

I mean, it sucks to get rejected and as a scientist you get rejected all the time. Google 'journal article rejection letters'. Even if you get an article accepted, they will usually tear it apart for really stupid reasons that make you feel like they don't even know English (...French/Spanish...). So, if she's interested in science, she's going to have to find her own motivation for doing it and not rely on others to provide encouragement. It's a hard lesson to learn but it will serve her well.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

The most important predictor of success is how people respond to failures. I think this is so fundamental that I've started giving jelly beans to my English students only when they make mistakes.

If we don't have permission to fail, we can't try anything difficult.
posted by amtho at 2:02 PM on December 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

At times like that, I turn to the greatest motivational speech in movie history.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:04 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Your answers have been the best to any question that I've posted. I really appreciate the feedback and also that you've all offered different types of points of view. Thank you for calling me out on my failure of logic regarding what is more or less important in the overall scheme of things. Please feel free to add more or contact me directly. I've been sharing some of the answers with my daughter and they have made a difference for her. She has even started thinking of her next science or humanity project on how to measure the kindness and support of strangers.
posted by YukonQuirm at 2:04 PM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Hopefully this one doesn't ramble too long, but sorry about the length (in advance).

Its a personal story/experience that I continue to reflect on as an example of life turning on the smallest things, and that bad experiences can sometimes end up being good ones in the long run.

I was an A or A+ student in high school English. Wanted to be a journalist, and wanted to go to the one university in my home city which offered a dedicated journalism course.

But to do so - or at least pass the first entry requirements, I needed minimum A grade in my Year 12 (final high school year) English marks - made up of 2 projects/exercises and 2 end of year exams.

First two exercises - A+. Then, the first of the two end-of-year exams went really well as well.

When I fronted to the second one a couple of days later, everything seemed to be falling into place - one of the writing tasks I could choose from was to write a newspaper article - a newspaper article!! - based on the book I'd read as part of the year's curriculum.

Wrote what I thought was a great article in journalist style writing. But when the exam results came back, I got a D.

At that stage I thought my life was pretty much coming to an end.

My English teacher saw the mark and was furious. The thing was, the rules for the VCE (Victoria, Australia's Year 12 Certificate) stated that no-one could appeal against grades gained in English exams - maybe because there would be too many appeals as English was a compulsory subject.

So I was trapped with what I thought was an unjust mark without recourse for appeal, and with an overall mark that stopped me going to the university and doing the course of my choosing.

(As a sidenote, my English teacher and I applied to view my exam answer a couple of weeks later. When we did she read the piece, shook her head and said as we were leaving: "That was at least a B+ I would've thought.")

But what I remember most from all this was a remark from a teacher who knew me, but hadn't taught me, but knew the situation/bad exam mark, etc. He came up to me as I was walking to one of my classes, guided me aside and said, very earnestly: "You've been hard done by, but you know what - it's happened for a reason. You just have to believe it has happened for a good reason and use it to move on."

Given I attended a religious school I think God might've got a couple of mentions in the teacher's chat with me - along the lines of: "The Lord moves in mysterious ways".

But the substance of what he said remained the same - religion or no religion.

At the time I struggled to see the wisdom in what he said. But for some reason the remark stuck with me over the summer break and before I started my university course at my "second choice" uni location and course.

And you know what - the longer I have lived - I'm now in my mid-30s - the truer the teacher's words have rung.

Going to my "second choice uni" was a blessing. I was able to not only do journalism, but combine it with a major in literature and a minor in history. That made me more well rounded and opened up a world of great books to me.

I met wonderful people, enjoyed the course structure hugely and used the final bad mark I got to drive me to do everything I could to excel. I was lucky enough to have some wonderful teachers and tutors to help me get the best out of myself and help me do some great work.

Near the end of my third and final year there, one of my tutors came to me and gave me a phone number. She said: "Give them a call, they rang me looking for someone who could start work there as a cadet and I gave them your name".

I was stunned and really humbled. I rang the number and ended up getting a job working on my hometown newspaper - a real great starting point in a career - before I'd even left university.

I arrived at the job at a time where there was a major national story happening in our own backyard. Writing on it saw me luck out and win some awards. That led to a move to a better newspaper, a better job, etc.

From there I moved around to other publications owned by the same people until I tired a bit of the newspaper writing and responded to an ad I saw by chance for a social enterprise that helps not-for-profits and community groups.

Got that job and have been working in a wonderful organisation since - one with flexible working hours, family friendly, challenging, stimulating, etc. Wouldn't have had this chance if not seen the job ad originally which wouldn't have happened if I'd not originally got the job I was recommended for by my tutor.

Finally, and definitely most importantly, one the second day of my original job at my hometown newspaper I was introduced to a colleague - beautiful young woman who I got all starry-eyed just thinking about.

Only when I left my original job did she ask me out (me, being a bit silly, didn't have the brains or courage to do so). I'm married to that beautiful woman now, and have a lovely home and two beautiful precious children. And a cat.

So I can say, honestly, that if I hadn't gotten that unjustified bad mark I wouldn't have gone to my "second choice uni", wouldn't have been recommended for my first job, and wouldn't have met my wife.

And I think to myself everyday - that teacher was right - these things happen for a reason.
posted by chris88 at 2:40 PM on December 4, 2011 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I'd say that all that you can say on the positive side for your daughter is that it is a learning experience that she, right now, is a more fair, honest, and smart person than the people responsible for judging the contest. It's a raw deal and while anecdotes may help show her that her experience is not uncommon I don't think it would actually make anyone feel any better.

The best you can do is make it clear that you are on her side and that you know that she deserved better. If she wants to pursue something for specific resolution on the issue she has to know you'd back her play, but just as importantly she has to know that you know she got screwed on that deal.

In terms of trying to prevent her from becoming discouraged it's important to note that she is someone who was smart enough and worked hard enough to create an entry that did in actuality deserve to win. Someone with that kind of work ethic, creativity, and intelligence is not going to let one badly judged contest rattle her, nor should she.
posted by frieze at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, it may be worthwhile to let her know that this happens ALL THE TIME with the adult version of science, that is, an NSF or NIH grant review. Being a good professional scientist at that level is mostly about getting smacked down your first five tries at getting a grant or getting a paper into Nature, and not taking it to heart that your hard work got a 10 minute read through by one or three people who didn't get the impact. Frankly I'm not sure even I have the ego for that, and I'm in grad school in cognitive science. Failure in science isn't something that happens sometimes, it's virtually guaranteed.
posted by slow graffiti at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

She's probably not going to be a superstar scientist like Einstein or Tesla. But that's okay! There are a lot of scientists who do good or even great work who are well known in their fields but unknown elsewhere.

I just wanted to chime in to hit this point a little harder. The stories of famously accomplished people can certainly be inspiring and comforting, especially when the sting of rejection is fresh. On the other hand, they're not exactly "real" people in our lives.

I think that closer-to-home role models for things like coping with disappointment and adversity (regardless of the subject matter) are really important, too. Our day-to-day lives and self-worth are governed more by what kind of person we are than whether we wind up famous for our accomplishments.
posted by desuetude at 4:17 PM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems like there are two components as to why this is upsetting. The first is the issue of someone's work not being recognized; the other is that a person who is not as 'good' won in a competition.

Regarding the recognition of work, I suppose highlighting the importance of the work itself, rather than the competitive side of things might help. Perhaps there are other ways that it could be recognized (continuing the work with a mentor sounds like a great idea;maybe there are some summer-classes/hacker-spaces in this science area she could try to attend).

I found the concept of a mean person doing better than me hard to accept when I was a teenager. For example, when I realized that someone who was mean to classmates, could do better in a math test than me (when I assumed I was a better* person); this seemed extremely unfair. But this is how the world works. If you do the SAT, no one adjusts your score based on how respectful you were to your colleagues in high-school. However the life-satisfaction and enjoyment that you gain from being kind to people, are rewards in themselves.

In this case, I think it's important to distinguish between the two components and to realize that there are many aspects of life outside of one's control.

*This is also a problematic assumption in itself but I was a teenager!
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 4:51 PM on December 4, 2011

Sometimes a student can take measures of performance (grades, awards) too seriously. It's easy to do when your whole childhood is structured by classes, homework, and grades. Now think about a student who excels in her classes and wins awards at school. How good she feels about that! Unfortunately it can become an obsession to do well, or to be a perfect student, or to win parental approval and love.

You, as a parent, can help by loving your daughter, whether she wins the science fair or not, wins an athletic competition or not, is voted Homecoming Queen or not, gets straight A's nor not.

(For more on this, see: The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller)
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:54 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Most everybody can empathize with wanting something badly — whether it's to get into a certain college, to get achieve score on the SAT, or to make it to the nationals of a science fair — and working hard, only to not achieve the goal in the end. It's gutting. But to have your bully reach the goal, and not you? That's the salt in the wound. That makes the incident a lot harder to move past.

With regards to the competition:

I can't speak to science fairs specifically, but I know that being denied something you work hard for either has two effects: it discourages you so badly that you stop trying, or you work even harder because now you have something to prove (so to speak). I've experienced both. The former is a terrible feeling, obviously; you don't need to be told that. The latter gives me an energy, a drive that gets me through the day, and I swear it makes the successes so much more satisfying.

If there's a science fair next year, or in high school, please encourage her to enter. It might be hard to convince her, but regardless of how far she makes it in the next competition, I think she will end up telling the story to her own daughter someday as encouragement.

With regards to the bully:

Please tell her not to avoid the bully. I don't know if she's worried about facing the bully in school (presumably the bully goes to the same school?), but if I were in her shoes, I probably would be. However, avoidance is not the solution.

The best revenge is good living. Interpret "revenge" however you need to with regards to the situation, but this is how you take adversity and use it to make yourself stronger.

I remember a bus driver told me once about how, back in high school, he bullied a kid — I think it was because the kid was a nerd, but I can't remember exactly — and the kid had grown up to be a huge success, making an insane amount of money off his nerdy-ness while he (the bus driver) didn't appear to have much he was proud of.

Maybe this bully will go on to be successful. Maybe she (he?) won't. But we can be sure that not moving onto nationals does not mean that your daughter won't be successful. She still has everything she needs to be successful and happy. And at the end of the day, you — her mother — will be prouder of her for overcoming this speed bump than you would have been if her science project had gone to nationals.
posted by hypotheticole at 8:07 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When Barry Marshal first proposed that ulcers might be caused by bacteria, no one believed him, because everyone knew ulcers were caused by stress. He gave a talk where I used to work and said he still has the rejection letter for a talk he didn't get to give when he had his first solid data. He doesn't display it as prominently as he does his Nobel prize, though.

Svante Arrhenius has a similar story.

Seriously, I've judged science fairs. There's a certain amount of fun to be had watching the look on the faces of the people running the show when a 6'4" ogre of a guy with a foot and a half of hair shows up and announces he's there to judge (and crush their pathetic preconceptions beneath his heel). That fun does not make up for the quality of the judging criterion at most science fairs. Don't even get me started on the time I was paired with a teacher who had pretty obviously decided who was getting what score before I arrived. (I so wish I was making this up.)

In science - real science - the joy is in the finding out, not in the knowing. Science fairs are like a special apparatus that use high pressures and temperatures to squeeze this joy out of the process.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:55 PM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

And if your daughter gets overwhelmed by all this stiff-upper-lip and cosmic karma advice (with which I totally agree and commend the posters for sharing with you) she just might want to enjoy a good laugh about a fictional character in the same situation as herself. After reviewing it yourself to make sure you agree it is appropriate for her, you might want to direct her to this delightful story based on the Harry Potter genre. In this version Harry has been home schooled, particularly in science, up until he receives his letter by owl, and is then thrust into a world totally ignorant of any concept of disciplined research and scientific rigor. What your daughter just experienced is bad, but maybe a little humor may help put things in perspective. I figured it didn't hurt to provide the link and make the suggestion.
posted by forthright at 8:59 PM on December 4, 2011

This will be little solace to your daughter, I'm sure, but as a parent, I try to remember that kids who always succeed and never fail tend to become older kids and adults who are scared of trying anything hard or challenging, for fear of failing. Having this kind of smackdown when you're young can actually make you keep trying harder--it feels wretched, but if your daughter only ever does well, at some point, she might stop taking risks.

So good luck to her and to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:21 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty young still, and had something really similar happen to me in early high school. I totally remember the feelings of frustration something like this can bring on. You've got some fantastic advice upthread. The sort of things I wish people had told me at the time. But let me also recommend, to deal with the immediate aftermath, the benefit of shutting oneself up in one's room, blasting awesome music, punching some pillows, and getting completely distracted for a bit. The wisdom will come, but sometimes it's ok to take a day, or even a couple hours, to drink in the fact that that yeah, life isn't fair a lot of the time, and that can really suck.
posted by sparrow89 at 1:53 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

A young cousin of mine built a functioning rocket for his science fair and didn't win on a technicality when his project was clearly the best. He was annoyed at first, but do you know what? He had fun building the rocket and everyone thought the rocket was awesome. I agree with those above who say that the lesson to learn is that, unfortunately, life is not always a merit-based system. Recognition is nice, but not all awards are given out fairly. Hopefully she enjoyed her project, learned something, felt proud of it and her efforts, and knows that you are proud of her, too. Also, not coming in 1st place isn't the same as failure. So encourage her to stop treating it as a loss, but sure, let her be angry that the crappy bully guy won.
posted by emd3737 at 4:25 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So I have a sort of similar personal-experience story.

When I was in middle school, I was fascinated by psychology. So I did my science fair project on the unreliability of eyewitnesses. I went to the community college library by myself to get journal articles, I worked really hard, and I thought it was a really good project. It was way more conceptually advanced than most of the other kids' projects, too. Unfortunately, my science teacher was a bully herself, and she hated me. She said my science fair project "wasn't science" (despite her having approved it before) and gave me a D. My bitterest rival, a girl who was consistently cruel to me and to all the other girls, got an A+ on her project about growing plants. There were a few scientists attending the science fair (parents of other students). All of them were really impressed by my project, said that it was the level of work they'd expect from their undergraduate students, and were appalled that I'd gotten such a bad grade on it -- that didn't help, though. I still had a D in science, I wasn't allowed to take the advanced-level science course the next semester, and it was just a horrible thing. I lost all my interest in psychology, and science in general, because I decided I just wasn't any good at it.

But then, a few years later, I was a freshman in college and I took Intro to Psych to fulfill one of my gen-ed requirements. I fell back in love and switched majors from Creative Writing to Neuroscience. I've had my ups and downs with science since then, but I got my Ph.D. in neurobiology last August, and I'm working as a post-doctoral researcher with some of the pre-eminent people in my field.

My take-home message is that bad things happen all the time, and you just need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. In the end, I'm the only main figure in that story who is working as a scientist. My rival grew up into a decent human being, and coincidentally ended up going to med school in the same academic medical center where I do my research (I ran into her the other day). And my horrible bullying science teacher? I don't know if she's still working, but if she is, she's probably still a horrible small-minded ogre figure. (As my father said about her and all the other bullies I faced as a child: "Don't worry about her too much. Just think: you get to be you, but she has to be her for her whole life. Isn't that an awful fate?")
posted by kataclysm at 1:29 PM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for sharing your stories and for the MeMails. There's a whole lotta boning going on. I really appreciate how when you shared your stories you didn't minimize my daughter's experience of loss when clearly some experiences may have been far more brutal. The fact is that at that time she went through something that was difficult to understand. I thought she'd have a great sense of relieve knowing that others empathized with her position. I think she did appreciate that - but she felt badly about how often this happens to people.

She understands this will happen again...and again to her. She just hopes there is a bit of a rest before the next time this happens :-)
posted by YukonQuirm at 5:40 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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