My daughter started Pre-K this month, and I can already tell it’s going to be an exciting year for her and mommy boot camp for me. Along with the flood of hugs and generous use of the word “friend,” I encountered a new experience: the “awkward parent/teacher moment.” It occurred last week, when my daughter got in trouble at school for the very first time.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I arrived at the usual hour. Upon entering, the teacher pulls me aside and informs me that my little one said something to a classmate that hurt the other girl’s feelings. I freeze, imagining horrible epithets or, worst of all, bullying – has my child turned into the mean girl? Gulping, I ask what she said. The teacher tells me that my daughter told another classmate, “I don’t want to play with you.” Standing beside me, my daughter dissolves into tears.
At that point, I try unsuccessfully to look cool, calm, and collected as my daughter hangs on my arm, crying loudly. I know that I should leave school immediately and discuss what happened with her, alone. But crazy mom takes over and there I am, defensive and flustered. The whole time I’m thinking, “What the heck is wrong with you, Wendy? Go home, now!”
Simultaneously, I’m wondering if it’s really such a big deal that my daughter told another child she didn’t want to play with her. The hamster in my head starts its wild ride; is she making someone feel lonely or excluded, what should I do when she’s on the other side of the equation, should I call the child’s mom and apologize? Only after the spinning stops do I ask myself: are we trying too hard to prevent our kids from feeling any pain?
My daughter’s faux pas wasn’t the only reason I was thinking about our national obsession with a pain-free childhood. I had recently read Lori Gottlieb’s article in The Atlantic Monthly, “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy.” If you don’t have time to read it, let me sum it up for you. Everything you’re doing with your kid is wrong. Here’s a pop quiz based on her findings:
Give your child choices (about what to wear, where to eat, and who to play with): Errrr (insert loud Family Feud X sound here). Wrong.
Try to immediately lessen the pain after your child scrapes a knee, gets rejected by a classmate, or has a bad day. Errrrrr. Wrong again.
Guess you’ll be reserving a spot on a therapist’s couch for your kid in 20 years, too. According to Gottlieb, if we don’t let our kids feel pain during childhood, they’ll never be able to handle or appreciate being happy.
I can see where she’s coming from. I think back to the time I got cut from the basketball team, wasn’t invited to a birthday party, or was spoken to meanly by a peer. It hurt so badly! At the time, it felt like the pain would never go away. But, guess what? It did, and I moved on. And those tough times helped me realize that I could overcome other obstacles in my life. The pain also taught me the importance of the words “I’m sorry,” since I would inevitably hurt others as well.
So what happens when we let our kids, even when they’re four, struggle with pain and not try to absorb or resolve it? I may have found the answer while watching MTV’s True Life “Where Are They Now” (YES, I read The Atlantic AND watch MTV).
On the show was a young woman who, about a year earlier, had let True Life record her struggles with her recent alopecia diagnosis (alopecia involves hair loss in places it usually grows). I watched her review the original episode as she sat on the couch with a friend, chuckling over how upset she’d been when her hair was falling out. How does she feel about it now? Exactly how’d you’d hope and expect: she says alopecia is part of who she is, that it’s made her stronger, and if it’s the worst thing to happen to her in life she’ll consider herself lucky.
As I consider why we parents have given ourselves the responsibility to protect our children from feeling just about any and all pain, I realize that maybe the hurt we think they’re experiencing is not theirs but actually our own. We don’t see the comments and criticisms from friends and teachers as small specks on our children’s relatively blank slates. Instead, their pain gets added to our own well-worn canvas, with all of its scratches, scuff marks, and scribbles.
With that in mind, I decided to take a somewhat different approach this week. I didn’t leap off the bus when my daughter discovered that she had dropped her favorite bow along the sidewalk. And I was a bit tough on her while swimming on Sunday, when she seemed to have forgotten everything she learned over the summer. No, I'm not going to turn into Mommy Dearest (I hope) any time soon, but I am going to learn to pick my battles – and, in the meantime, even let my daughter survive a few of her own.
~By Wendy Widom, Partner, Families in the Loop
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