Yes, I Suck

This weekend my daughter said, Kids at school think I’m dirt! No one likes me. I’m too short, I don’t have the right clothes, my voice is too high…”

Heartbreaking stuff. She’s an 8-year-old with shitty self-esteem.

We had a long talk about positive self talk, about how you’ve got to believe deep down inside that you are good, that you are beautiful and smart and worthy and lovable no matter what people say. My daughter listened, but she looked unconvinced.

I told her that every time she goes to the bathroom and looks in the mirror as she washes her hands to think: I am smart. I am beautiful.

But then this morning I came across John Cloud’s fascinating article in the online archives of Time Magazine Health: Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking. The article is about self-esteem, self-judgment as well as positive and negative thinking. It includes a study that supports “newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.”

Hmmm. Perhaps I just need to listen to my daughter’s negative self-talk and try not to convince her otherwise?

All of this got me thinking about, well, the way I think about myself. What am I modeling for my daughter?

Do I think of myself as smart? Do I think of myself as beautiful?

The answer is: No. I do not.

My internal dialog runs the gamut of Holy shit did you really just say that? If I just lost 5 pounds…This writing is total crap! My hair looks like a squirrel died on my head. I can’t believe I smell this way…

My brain (or personality?) choses to chew on the negative. I have TMJ of the brain.

I suspect it’s not just me who feels this way. There are so many ways media cuts a woman’s psyche down in order to get her to buy a whole bunch of stuff. The advertising promises that we will Feel amazing! Look better! 

When it comes to my friends and family, I am a glass half full type of person. But when it comes to myself, not so much.

Photo-illustration by Reena de la Rosa for TIME

I grew up in an interesting home. My mother was a cheerleader, but had subtle ways of making me feel like I was a work in progress. In retrospect, sending a slightly chubby 12-year-old to Weight Watchers with a neighbor seems a questionable thing for a mother to do.

My father was a negative Nelly. He had very old school notions about raising a girl. I was supposed to be pretty and thin. When I’d reach across the table to take a second helping of chicken at dinner he’d point to his wedding ring and shake his head implying that if I ate more food I’d never get married. He used to say that my brother would get the M.B.A. and I would get the MRS.

I never saw my mom’s natural hair color (which was, I think, brunette). She always, always had blonde hair out of a bottle. And she never left the house without a full face of make-up. She was almost always trying out a new diet when I was a kid.

The message?

You are not okay as you are.

My mom never said a negative word to me about my appearance. She always told me I was beautiful, even as she permed my 7-year-old hair and took me on countless shopping trips for better clothes. Hmmmm.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want my daughter or sons to feel that they suck.  But I also need to give them the space to talk about their negative feelings while modeling positive self-esteem.

Hello, therapist? It’s Jen. I need a little help, please.

How do you feel about yourself? What messages are you giving your kids through example? 

 

Parenthood: A Wild Rumpus

Illustration by Peter Brown from The Curious Garden

The little boy was wearing blue jeans with one thread-worn knee and a red rugby shirt. When his mother opened the door to the bookstore he raced straight back to the children’s section, pulled a couple of picture books off the shelf and flopped down on his belly.

The boy turned the pages of the brightly illustrated book with one hand and twirled a short brown curl around the index finger of his other hand. His breath slowed as he grew immersed in the story of seven siblings who were silly eaters.

As I straightened books in the nonfiction section I watched as he turned to the last page and then carefully put the book back on the shelf. Then, on his knees he made his way around the display, taking his time to examine each cover of the line of books. Head cocked, eyebrows raised, his interest was thoroughly piqued.

Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman

One of the things I’ve always loved about working in a bookstore, especially a small independent one, is seeing kids come in with such excitement about searching for their next book. Seeing a child get bit by the reading bug it really is a glorious thing to behold.

On this particular day, after I’d finished shelving books I made my way up to the front counter. The boy was still in the back, now rocking back and forth on the old, beloved rocking dragon while trying to balance a book on the handles so he could read at the same time.

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

The boy’s mother was leaning against the wall by the mystery section and seemed immersed in her own new book. A tiny elderly woman wearing a silver raincoat and matching hat made her way to the front counter and asked me to help her find a book for a baby shower. The bookstore cat was sleeping soundly in the in-box in front of the warm computer screen.

For a few minutes I’d forgotten about the little boy in the back of the store, but when I made my way back to the front counter his mother came up and called his name.

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

The boy arrived, holding two books in his hands. He had the look of someone who had found a secret stash of gold. He leaned into his mother and whispered Can I get these? His mothered pulled him to the side and looked at the books. These aren’t right for you, she said. No, this one is too hard. And this one is for babies. You can’t get these.

The boy visibly wilted. He dropped his hands and held the books limply by his side. Looking at his hands he said, But they look so good. And then, Please? His mother wouldn’t change her mind. The boy went trudging back to the children’s section to look for something else.

Now, who knows what events preceded this bookstore visit, or how frustrating this woman’s day had or had not been, but my heart hurt for the little boy. I’d seen firsthand how much he had enjoyed those books. I saw how they had captured his imagination. I also felt for his mother. How many times had my kids brought me something in a store that I simply didn’t want to buy because it seemed, well, stupid to me at the moment? Many times.

I started thinking about how often I’d shut my kids down. And how often I’d made snap judgements about their choices without considering how much thought and energy they’d put into making those choices.

Had I given my children the withering look of parental impatience at times? Yes. Had these looks make them feel unworthy? I believe so.

Parenting is hard. It is really fucking hard. And no one gets it just right. There is no magic formula for growing the best kid, and with the exception of a few really lame people, most parents put a lot of heart and effort into their children.

But watching that interaction really showed me that I need to keep checking myself. I need to listen to how I talk to my kids. I need to be cognizant of what my reactions are telling my kids about their worth. Because even when I am having a crap day, they are still worthy, and I want them to feel their worth and carry it with them always.

Everything Possible

I am linking up this post, which is one of my favorites, with Alison of Mama Wants This! and Ado of The Momalog to help Alison celebrate the 1st anniversary of her wonderful blog. I chose this post because, simply, I love my son and think there are probably other parents who can relate to how I feel about this particular kid.

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The other night my son and I were sitting on the sofa together, his dark blond head against my chest, our fingers intertwined. As I do every day, I try to get him to talk to me about his day, about his friends, about whatever is going on in his imagination. Usually I have to wrestle and tickle him until he’s tired out and flopped on the sofa, feet up where his head should be, head tilted upside down over the side like a worn out puppy to get him to talk.

It’s funny, if you’d asked me five years ago who I would worry most about, I would’ve said my daughter’s name in a heartbeat. But as she’s gotten a bit older I’ve learned that a little piss & vinegar and dogged determination will take a kid with challenges a long way. So it is not my daughter I lay awake at night thinking about. It’s my son.

It is hard to get my boy to talk. If you know him well, his eyes will tell you everything you need to know. I’ve always said he was an old soul with those big dark brown eyes and sweet, thoughtful disposition. From across the room you can tell if he’s happy or sad, worried or confused just by looking at his eyes. But this kid holds a lot in, and I want him to learn to put his feelings into words.

Ever since he was really little, my son was different from the other little boys we hung out with in playgroups and preschool. He didn’t like to play with cars or army men, GI Joe or pretend guns. He was bookish, enjoyed puzzles and cracking plastic eggs on the lip of a tiny pan in the small wooden kitchen at school.

When other boys were joining soccer teams or going to basketball camp, my son stood back, preferring to play with the girls (or some of the quieter boys). So when my son was resting his head against me the other night and I asked him who he played with a recess that day, it didn’t come as a surprise that he said a bunch of girls’ names.

I asked if he still played with any of the boys he used to mention on occasion. He said, Not really. I’m different from them. Twisting my thumb gently, he buried his head against my shoulder. That’s okay, I said. I pretend like I’m friends with the boys so they won’t notice, he said softy. And then, Sometimes I like girly things. His breath warmed my chest as he waited for my response. There are plenty of guys who like girly things. There are men who knit, who sew, cook, play piano, go shopping…

And before I knew it he had rolled off the couch and started flopping around on the floor like a goofball while making silly kid noises. As he tried to tickle me with his feet I said, You just be yourself and be proud of who you are because you are so loved. I think you are the absolute greatest thing since chicken nuggets.

But here, again, my heat broke a little. Be yourself and be proud of who you are is not easy in a world that is filled with fear and hatred, with closed minds and judgmental hearts. Here is a kid who already knows, instinctively, to fake it around other boys. To deny who he is so he’ll fit in. To deny who he is so he won’t get bullied or hurt.

Even when I gave him a catalog to look through for holiday gift ideas, I saw him take his time and really pour over the pages of girl’s toys. I told him he could pick anything, anything at all. Even a doll, or Polly Pocket, or a kitchen gadget, it didn’t matter. I just wanted him to have what would make him happy. But he fell back on his default choice even though I knew it wasn’t super exciting to him. I wanted so badly to go to ToysRUs and fill up the cart with all of those pink things that caught his eye and put them in his room, but I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable either.

So I ask, how do I best support my son? How do I help him to accept who he is and not feel shame? I don’t know if he’s gay or straight. It doesn’t matter to me either way. I just want to keep him strong and help protect him from the challenges he may face in the future by parenting him in the best way possible now.

There is no simple way to wrap up this post. I would love comments, and if you know someone who might have helpful thoughts, please feel free to share this with him or her.

Also, wanted to share this beautiful song called Everything Possible. Great lyrics.