Molly over at My Cozy Book Nook as a new Summertime Meme based on the book Life Is A Verb by Patti Digh. Each week of the summer, Molly is sharing a passage from the book that got her thinking. Anyone who chooses can participate by writing their thoughts about the passage she shares. The first excerpt she shared was this:
I once read of a man who went into a kindergarten class and asked how many of the kids could sing – every hand shot up immediately. How many could dance? Same response. How many could paint? Again, all hands shot up eagerly. He then went into a college classroom and asked the same questions. Did he get the same response? No. No hands went up. What happens in those years between five and eighteen to our sense of joy and possibility and personal command of the universe? We learn to mask ourselves…..Don’t say you can paint, because someone else might paint better than you do and people will judge. Don’t say you can sing, because you’re no Johnny Cash. Don’t say you can write if you’re not on the New York Times best-seller list. (page 39-40 of the Intensity section)
DISCLAIMER: This is a long post … and it isn’t very funny. Rather, it is some thoughts from a mother who has some concerns about raising her son to be a confident person while still fitting in. If this topic interests you, please feel free to read and share your thoughts with me. I’m very curious to hear what others think of these issues. However, I won’t be offended if you want to skip the post!
As a parent of young child, I’ve seen the boundless self-confidence my son has. He truly believes he is the fastest runner in the world. He sings loudly and boldly. He struts around the house naked without shame (yet oddly will not pee outside). He dances with a complete abandon that fills me with joy (and the giggles). When we are drawing together, he sees an entire fantastical story laid out before him. His belief in the possibilities of life are endless.
Yet I’m starting to see the cracks appear.
When playing soccer this spring, he never got a goal while his best friend scored goal after goal after goal. When he began dragging his feet when it came time for soccer games, I asked him what was wrong. He confessed that he was upset that he wasn’t scoring any goals. We talked about how a soccer team requires all sorts of players … some who score goals, some who help score goals, and some who prevent goals. We talked about how he often trailed along behind the action. We told him that if he wanted a chance at scoring a goal, he would have to put himself in the action and get to the ball. He seemed to understand and started to get more involved with the games, but I could see that some of the joy had diminished for him. (In case you are wondering, this had nothing to do with the coach. I adore his coach, who is interested in nothing but all the kids getting a chance to play and have fun.)
What happened was, for the first time, my son was in a position to compare himself to his peers–and he was seeing that, in this particular instance, he wasn’t as good as some other kids. His best friend has a natural talent for soccer. He moves the ball well and has a dogged determination once he gets the ball. He is also fearless; he doesn’t hesitate to put himself into the action. While this often results in falls, bruises and a bloody lip, it also results in goals. My son, on the other hand, is more cautious and tends to overthink things. He hesitates and thinks and positions himself … and by that time the ball is long gone.
Seeing him experience this pained me. It was hard to see him measure himself against a friend and come up short. But, at the same time, this is a lesson we all have to learn at some point. We’re NOT good at everything. The key is to find out what you are good at and develop those gifts AND to make peace with your own abilities but to not let them keep you from enjoying something.
For example, I enjoy singing, but I realize I don’t have a great singing voice. I’m certainly not a Johnny Cash (or even Tom Waits … say what you want about his voice, the man knows how to work with what he has). If I was in a classroom where people were asked who could sing, I would not raise my hand. But does this stop me from singing? No! I just don’t do it in public. I sing in the shower, I sing when I’m scrubbing the toilets, I sing when I’m driving in the car. What I don’t do is delude myself that I need to share my singing with the rest of the world. Say what you want about the dangers of masking yourself, but when I see clips of the audition weeks from American Idol, I feel sorry for those people. They are raising their hands and saying “I can sing!” … and yet they can’t. And God bless them for putting themselves out there on national TV, but I think they are not doing themselves a favor because the point of showing those clips is to mock those people, to laugh at them. Some are so painful to watch I have to turn away.
Which brings me to my conundrum as a parent. How do I nurture my child and encourage his belief in his own possibilities without misleading him about his strengths and weaknesses? How do I console him when he realizes he isn’t the best at something … but without crushing his desire to pursue it even if he won’t excel at it? How do I prepare him for the school years that are coming where he will be judged, graded and have to try out for things? (Let’s not fool ourselves … as you advance in school, everyone doesn’t get to play the sports or act in the plays or sing in the choir or make the honor society.)
I think back to my own childhood. I was always a bit of an off-beat kid who didn’t always dress “right” (pantyhose and clogs, anyone?) or look “right” or do things in the “normal” way. But I never felt too bad about it. I didn’t hesitate to be different from others. In fact, it was almost a point of pride with me. I was the girl who gave a speech on raw fish … and kept the fish in my school locker all day. I was the girl who dressed up as Janis Joplin for a book report … which included lip-syncing to “Get It While You Can” while swigging from a bottle of Southern Comfort (filled with iced tea, of course) while wearing one of my mom’s old wigs and 1960s dresses. I marched to the beat of my own drummer, and despite incredibly awkward years, I came through with my confidence and self-esteem intact. Even during my darkest years in college –when I doubted myself and wondered about my own lovableness–I always retained some semblance of “I’m a worthwhile and capable person.” (Never underestimate the power of academic success to bolster the negative feelings caused by repeated romantic failures.)
It never crushed me that I couldn’t do everything wonderfully and perfectly. I’d just move on to something else, honed the things I was good at, and practiced the things I wasn’t good at (albeit privately) if they give me joy. I was happy with myself. I like to think I’m not deluded or vain but confident. I think I’m a worthwhile person, and I’m willing to try things and look like a fool if I think I’ll have some fun. I credit my parents with instilling this sense of self-worth, which is probably the most precious gift a parent can bestow on a child. (Now don’t get me wrong … I’m not saying I didn’t have moments of self-doubt and crises of confidence because I did. But I never truly wavered in my own ability to pull things off … except maybe in chemistry class).
And if I do nothing else as a parent, I want to instill this same sense of confidence in my son. I want him to try new things, to not be afraid to make a fool of himself, and to develop his gifts. But I realize that the world isn’t always the wonderful happy place I’ve tried to make it for him so far. Recently, he has been having troubles with a little girl on his bus. She has been making fun of him and calling him a crybaby. He’s gotten of the school bus several times in tears. (Thereby proving her point, as Mr. Jenners pointed out.) We’ve been talking to him about how to deal with this. Our advice was to ignore her so she didn’t get what she wanted (which is for him to be upset). Another was to throw her off track by saying brightly “Thank you. I appreciate your feedback.” We explained that sometimes people who said mean things were trying to get a person upset. My son was SHOCKED that people might do this. It is hard for him to comprehend that everyone in the world isn’t going to be his friend or like him.
As much as I want to cushion him from this, I know it isn’t the right reaction. Not everyone will like you. People will laugh at you. People will make fun of you if you fail. People will ostracize those who “don’t fit in.” I think we all remember our school days when we were first exposed to the cruelty that exists in the schoolyard. I remember my very first day on the school bus for high school. Some older boys decided to pick on me and another girl. The entire bus ride, they hung over us and said nasty things to us: how ugly we were, how stupid we were, how much we smelled. My response was to remain absolutely quiet, stare straight ahead, and give them no reaction. The other girl cried. Guess who they left alone and who they continued to torture of the remainder of the school year? (If you didn’t guess, my reaction saved me from further torture … I didn’t give them what they wanted.)
During that horrible horrible bus ride, I instinctively knew how to protect myself. I put on my armor. I didn’t internalize their taunts and nastiness. I thought they were the ones with the problems. The reason I could do this was my innate belief in myself. I knew I was better than that. They couldn’t break me.
As my son enters the cutthroat world of the schoolyard, I want to give him the armor he needs to survive. But I also want him to thrive and not be afraid to let his freak flag fly. I want him to learn when to raise his hand and sing out loud and when to save his singing for in front of the mirror with his hairbrush. I want him to paint a picture without needing it to be awarded a blue ribbon. But, at some level, I want him to always feel that he is the fastest kid in the world … but I also want him to keep that knowledge to himself and realize it probably isn’t true.
I feel like I’m contradicting myself here, and there is where I struggle. How can I teach my son to “blend in” to avoid needless pain and torture while also teaching him to march to his own drummer? I think we do need to wear a mask to protect ourselves from the cruelty that exists in the world … but under that mask, I want him to be smiling and singing at the top of his lungs.
Trying not to keep my light and my son’s light under a bushel,