by Dianna Flett

What moments built you? Can you pinpoint times when something happened that turned into a building block for who you are?

I have one that came from a most unexpected origin. I was 27, already commissioned, working and building my life as an Army officer. As a young captain I was always looking for moments of inspiration and they often revealed themselves during unexpected moments. This particular reveal was during an Officer Professional Development (OPD). Of course the Army takes building leaders very seriously. Each month we had organized OPDs planned by fellow officers or led by our commanders. Occasionally special speakers came in to support the session. One such special session on our calendar featured a professional football referee as our guest speaker.

I thought, “Oh great. Here we go again. I’m embroiled in testosterone and I have to listen to the crotch grabbing, butt scratching philosophies of a professional football guy. Welcome to my world.”

This football official had amongst his credentials a long list of post season assignments including ten championship games and Super Bowls VI, XI and XII. His name was Jim Tunney. I barely watched football or any sport at that point in my life so the impressive nature of these credentials was lost to me. Still I, like every other officer in the unit, settled in for an hour of “mentoring” that I thought would leave me with nothing but the good old boy take on life.

I was quite wrong.

Dr. Tunney’s stories were varied and inspirational. One stood out to me and became my building moment. Dr. Tunney talked about working to support the Special Olympics. He was the “Head Official” during the day of competitions, and thus gave out the awards. At the ceremony Dr. Tunney commenced with his honor of hanging the medals on the necks of the champions. He went up to a young boy on the tallest podium. The boy won a track race that day, and accordingly Dr. Tunney hung the gold medal around the boy’s neck. The young boy, while avoiding eye contact, said a simple “Thank You.”

Dr. Tunney joined the parent group standing by the podiums while the medal winners stood to the applause of the crowd.

He nonchalantly leaned over to the mother of the boy he’d just awarded and said, “Isn’t that wonderful?”

The mother, her eyes brimming with tears, responded, “Yes it is. Those are the first words he’s ever spoken.”

(Pause here because this still makes me tear up.)

His story hit me hard. I rolled the mom’s words over and over in my mind. While everyone applauded the gold medal, a mother stood in awe of the real and unexpected win. I took that lesson forward in my life and for years I’ve looked for the unexpected wins. It made me a better officer and a much better parent.

It’s natural, I think, for parents to get a bit competitive when it comes to our children’s accomplishments. Of course we all want to have successful children. We want things to be easy for them and have them move seamlessly through life, enjoy the classic success of being the athlete, the successful academic and/or the “best all around” in school.

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I’ve come to understand that the greatest periods of learning in my boys are not when times are easy or when they are “winning”. It’s when times are challenging and hard to accept. Times when they are failing and looking for the grit to rise up and try again. I work hard to “coach” them vice clearing the path for them and notice when they navigate obstacles they are learning the most in terms of life. It is hard to stand by sometimes, and no doubt it is a delicate balance on when to step in and when not to. As the coach I want my “team” to win, but I’ll take the loss on occasion as long as we learn the lessons.

The seasons are changing and soon our children will be heading off to new adventures in new grades with new friends. There will be conflict and course corrections, there will be failures and successes within their worlds and mine. I don’t want to always look for the gold medal. Sometimes I just want to take the time to notice the challenges they face, coach them through the difficulties that arise, and when we have a chance to sit down and review what they’ve learned from those challenges, I look forward to pointing out the unexpected wins.

Those unexpected wins, their life lessons – those will be the moments that build them.