Learning door-to-door

An 8th grader from a local middle school knocked on my door over the weekend selling holiday wreaths as part of a school fundraiser. She probably had no idea that the simple act of attempting a task so many of today’s kids outsource to their parents was about to make me the easiest sale of her day.

I try to resist the tired middle-age proclamations about how things were done “back in my day.” In fact, I think that modern advances, especially around technology, are often making today’s kids’ lives harder, not easier.

But whether the kids of my generation were selling Girl Scout cookies or collecting our neighbors’ payments for the newspapers we’d delivered dutifully, I think our parents did us a favor by sending us out with nothing more than encouragement. It takes guts to knock on a door of someone who’s unlikely to be happy to see you. It takes guts to deliver a sales pitch to a stranger, to deal with rejection, and to keep coming back for more. And it takes guts for parents to let their kids develop their own guts.

When a school has a fundraiser based entirely around selling holiday wreaths, what’s the point of the entire exercise? Is it for a parent to sell the wreaths at work or even just to write the check, to take the work and experience and learning away? Or is it to send kids outside of our watchful gaze and let them learn to navigate their way in a world that doesn’t come with instructions or with a parent clearing away all the obstacles?

Some parents may push back and say that they’re just protecting their kids. I understand that inclination now that I’m a parent far more so than I ever did before. But not only does the data suggest that the world is safer for kids today than it ever has been—it also shows the alternative of keeping our kids on lock-down until they’re 18 or 21 or 37 puts them in a different kind of harm’s way.

Parents spend a lot of time swallowing their fear. It starts in the delivery room, and continues when watching kids toddle off to kindergarten and when they ride away on their bike for the first time. Parents who’ve already dropped an older child off at a college dormitory can attest to the lump-in-the-throat moment of watching them walk away to begin their lives as college freshmen (I get misty just thinking about it, and my oldest hasn’t even turned four yet).

This 14-year-old wreath-seller stood on my doorstep and delivered her pitch. She was nervous, but she did it. I asked her how things had gone that day—she sighed, but without an ounce of resignation answered, “I’ve gotten rejected nine times in a row.” She’d heard a range of reasons for the no’s—a few said they weren’t in the mood, a few others said they’d think about it, and one told her they didn’t believe that hers was in fact a real school and that the entire pitch was a scam.

But I think she’ll be even more likely to stand in the face of a future project where success isn’t guaranteed. I think she’ll be a little braver when she heads in to speak to her counselor or asks a teacher for help or sits for her college interviews. I think she’ll be more resilient if a part-time job or a prom invitation or a college says no. And I think those lessons will improve her odds in those and any other setting she faces where there aren’t any directions to follow, where her skills with human interaction and persuasion are a lot more important than her ability to select the right multiple-choice answer on a test.

And she’ll be back to deliver my wreath on Monday, December 10.