The Shoelace Conundrum

As a child, things came to me easily. I don’t remember learning how to read, I simply read — at the age of two. I just knew things and knew how to do them … until I met my nemesis, the shoelace. When my brother went off to school, I wanted to go to school more than anything else. Not because I knew anything about school, I just knew I couldn’t go because I was too young — and that my brother could go annoyed me daily. Then summer came and the wonderful news — when school started again, I would be able to attend. Except there was one problem. I had to be able to tie my own shoes.

Up until that point, I either wore Mary Janes with a buckle, or my mom tied my shoes with laces. So I sat down, absolutely certain I would know how to tie my shoes without any assistance, and couldn’t. The shoelace wouldn’t behave. All the times I had watched my shoes being tied, and I couldn’t make my fingers do the right thing at the right time. FRUSTRATING.

I asked my mom, whose patience is legendary, for help and she showed me (loop, swoop, and pull) more times than I can count. I put shoes on my bed and practiced. Dad taught me a different way — two bunny ears. Stupid shoelaces. More than one way to tie them and I failed at both. I despaired. I’d NEVER get to go to school.

I sought out our next door neighbor — she’d be able to teach me — and learned to put my thumbs in the loop and pull. Except when I did that, I pulled the laces straight through and had a knot, but no bow. I experienced a gamut of emotions from despair and frustration to anger and self-loathing because I couldn’t figure out how to do what every other person in my life appeared to do with ease. Once in a while, I’d have a moment of hope dashed by subsequent failure. I’m sure I must have cried more than once, and I know I yelled several times, “I CAN’T DO IT!!!” and a shoe or two might have taken flight.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, there were several factors making this an exceptionally trying lesson to learn. I am dyslexic, though it has rarely impacted my ability to read, it shows up in other forms. I also have control issues fine motor skills which is due to arthritis. The combination perhaps made learning to tie my shoes a more difficult endeavor. BUT no matter how frustrated I became, or how many times I “gave up,” I kept trying. Why? Because my desire for success (the right to go to school) was bigger than my frustration.

Achievement of a goal is attainable only if you are willing to keep failing until you succeed. Succinctly put, failure is critical to success. My ability to tie my shoes is founded on failure after failure that I eventually conquered.

So what is the conundrum surrounding my arch enemy, the shoelace? Time marches on and with it improvements and conveniences have been created. We have shoes with velcro and bungee laces that don’t require tying. Parents (and teachers) everywhere gave a huge sigh of relief. No more do they need to have the patience of a saint while waiting on a kid (or several) to tie their own shoes. No more frustration in attempting to teach a child to tie their own shoes. HOW can this be a bad thing?

Learning to tie your own shoe is a child-level rite of passage. And while it may appear trivial on the surface, it is an important part of our development. Without spelling it out, it teaches us the value of perseverance. It teaches us the value of failure. It teaches us about gut-level determination. And it teaches us about the joy and pride of achievement.

Alternatives to shoelaces are a great boon for parents, but we’re robbing our kids of one of the first critical lessons they might remember. If we clear the path for kids so there are no obstacles that must be overcome to achieve a goal, then what happens when later in life obstacles have them boxed in? They have no experience with failure and learning how to cope with it and turn it into success. We have lost the ability to make an assessment of how much we value the success that we’re striving for and put a price on what it is worth to us to achieve.

Learning to tie your shoes when you are 4-years-old has a MUCH BIGGER pride factor that comes with it because you know you have achieved something great … you have proven you are no longer a baby, but a big kid. Learning to tie your shoes at 7 or 8 is not the same thing because there is the feeling that you should have been able to do it earlier. No one else thinks it is such a great feat either.

I am a fighter. When I see an obstacle in my path, my thoughts are on how to get under, around, or over the obstacle to achieve my goal. I don’t give up. Just as we need to exercise our muscles to keep our body healthy, and exercise our brain to keep our mind sharp, we need to exercise our determination. It’s the Tubthumping concept. If we don’t practice getting up when we get knocked down, we won’t achieve our goals.

It seems a bit contradictory, but we need adversity to achieve success. We need to practice failing to learn how to do things right.

What method finally worked for me? I closed my eyes and made up a story. A bunny running around a tree and diving into a hole (loop, swoop, and pull) to escape a fox, and then closed the door, by pulling the laces tight, so the fox couldn’t get in. Stories reign supreme.

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