We Can Do Hard Things: A Pep Talk for My Teenage Son (and Myself)


A few weeks ago I was watching Luc, my sweet 16 year old boy with special needs, run at a cross country meet. I use the word “run” in a loose sense.

Think more like trudge. Lumber. Steady shuffle. Wog. 

I was miffed. I knew what Luc was capable of doing, and he wasn’t doing it.

After the race finished, I used my most “encouraging” voice to remind him to do better. Many words. Too many words for my Luc (and possibly any human). It wasn’t my best moment as a mom. I knew I hadn’t handled Luc correctly, but I also knew we needed to light a fire under him. I don’t expect Luc to place high or even run a personal best every week. But I do want him to push himself, work hard, and use his abilities to the fullest.

But HOW to help him do that alluded me. Maybe instead of my endless words, he just needed a few…

Later, I just said, “Be the runner you can be. Run. You. Are. A. Runner. Say it.”

L: I am a runner.
Me: No. Say it!! Mean it! You run every day. You ARE a runner! Say it!
L: I am a runner.
Me: Again. Bigger.
Me: Now go do it. Go BE a RUNNER!

He fist-bumped me and strolled off – not really the response I was looking for in my mini-pep-talk.
The next week, Luc ran a two mile race and ran better than we’d ever seen. I covered a lot of the course cheering for him. And he ran hard. “Because I’m a runner!”

His next race was a 5K. He took off hard. I quietly panicked. He was a runner, but this was a really fast runner! Was he prepared for that pace? We saw him a mile in and he looked strong, running right where he needed to be. Then he disappeared into a field.

We all waited, and I worried. Would he run hard with no one there to cheer? Could he hold that pace? Would he remember he IS a runner and push himself even when it got hard? Because with that pace, it WOULD get hard.

With about 1/2 mile left he popped over the ridge. Running hard, he charged up a very steep hill and passed a few kids. He passed me and I told him to get the 3 boys right in front of him. He took off, and then I worried he’d started his kick too soon and he’d be gassed. But he ran hard clear to the end, catching those boys and a couple more.

He saw his time and threw his hands up. He was looking at numbers he’d never seen before – a personal best by four minutes.

I tried to act calm and managed to sort of hold it together. Luc is the fourth of five boys – boys who play all the sports. I’ve seen big hits. Big plays. Big shots. Today I saw a big race, and a boy starting to figure out what hard work can do. He was so proud and excited.

I saw a runner. More important, Luc saw him, too.

Maybe our kids don’t always need our big talks, our endless examples, our constant encouragement. Maybe what they need is one simple word or phrase, something that triggers them to dig deep, focus, and accomplish the task at hand. Maybe the endless words of a mom really come down to a well-timed and simple phrase, spoken by the one they trust most….

“You can do this.”

“What’s the next best step? Do that.” 

“You’ve done hard things before, and you can do this hard thing, too.”

“Do what you know you can do.”

Twenty-three years as a mom and I’m still learning from my boys. Being a mom to them is tough – I don’t always know what to say, or when to say nothing.

But the memory of the look on Luc’s face reminds me to keep reflecting on what they need from me, so I quietly murmur to myself, “What’s your next best step? Do that….”