What do you tell your five-year-old daughter, who is enviably beautiful, and compassionate, and intelligent, and creative, and eager to please, when she tells you in a confused voice, “Mommy, Lucy told me I was strange.”
A. Well, what was happening? Were you being nice? Was she trying to talk to you? Were you talking to her, or being shy?
B. Well, she didn’t mean it that way sweetie. She was probably confused about what you were doing or saying.
C. Honey, sometimes people say things that feel mean, and it’s because they’re upset about something different, and it’s not your fault.
D. I have no idea, darling, because you are perfect.
Does any of these responses NOT lead to some kind of complex? I think I’ve got gas-lighting and sociopathy covered. Was there one I didn’t think of at the time? Because I said some version of all of these while I floundered for something to teach and comfort her, to prepare her for life without jading her. I never thought I’d have to face this so soon.
Scenario two: I’m watching her play with two of her friends, one her age, whom she adores, and another girl a couple of years older. And like most kids do, she says, “Jackie, watch me!” then proceeds to do her trick: jumping up and down and clapping at the same time.
The other two girls give each other: the look. The “smile and turn to see how they are supposed to respond without being rude” look, because this other little girl has done something silly and childish, and doesn’t realize it. She’s done something not cool. And my daughter has no idea.
They’re not even in school yet.
A big factor in this lack of awareness is that she is the oldest; she stills lives in her head, rather than in a world whose standards are set by older siblings, who provide her with constant exposure to what big kids do, who model language all day. Since all her friends her age are in Pre-K, she is the oldest one in playgroup, or at the Y, or at Chick-fil-A in the middle of the day– which she doesn’t mind a bit; everywhere she goes, she makes “friends,” and tells me about it later, and my heart swells with her goodness.
But in the fall, she’ll start kindergarten. And my heart is breaking for the inevitable day that she will come home in tears when some kid is actually mean to her, when she will see contempt on someone’s face and realize it’s directed at her.
This is my girl who cries when Mommy and Daddy laugh at jokes that she doesn’t understand. Who cries when her cousin (her BFF, who is the very antipathy of affectionate) doesn’t want to hug or kiss her when it’s time to go home. Who cried when the Mommy Lion in “Born in China” died. Who can squeeze out tears just remembering how sad she was when we “couldn’t find” her paci anymore two years ago.
To make it worse, this is my daughter who says things like, “My friends will like my dress,” or “My friends will like me with my new shoes.” Who asks how she looks. ALREADY.
And I think, What have I done?? Where did this concern for public opinion come from?? Did I do this to her??
If I brush her hair before leaving the house, am I teaching her to worry about her appearance? If I spend time myself putting on makeup (I’m not talking even 10 minutes here), is she absorbing some message about being “good enough” for the public eye?
I let her dress herself, I ooh and ahh at everything she colors, I tell her “good job” as much as possible. (According to this article, I could be in trouble!) I tell her things don’t have to be perfect. I can count on one hand the number of Princess movies she’s watched: Little Mermaid (only once), Beauty and the Beast, Pocahantas, Swan Princess, Tangled, and Frozen. (Facepalm: That’s six! I have failed my daughter!! )
I’ve contemplated what tactics, if any, we could take to “toughen her up.” A few of these have helped. She’s become an expert at the “brush it off and keep playing” reaction to falling down (after I empathize and do triage), and knows how to get out from under little brother trying to pin her down (because “no means no” doesn’t quite sink in for a 2-year-old). Group swimming lessons a year ago built her confidence immensely; she is becoming more confident about participating in primary, as opposed to refusing to sit up on the stand during her first primary program last year (which I honestly didn’t mind). And she has become the Grand Master of ways to slide down the big inflatable slides at Catch Air.
But I just can’t imagine a strategy to prepare her for emotional heartbreak that won’t first wreck her worldview–that every other kid her age is a friend who will love her just because she’s nice.
When I taught college English, one of my students wrote an essay about the disadvantages of being pretty. She shared that her mother made it clear to her quite a few times that if she succeeded at something, it was because of her looks. That because society is superficial, she shouldn’t get cocky about her successes, because they’re being handed to her. The obvious take-away was that she believed her own mother doubted her intelligence and capability. In an effort to protect her daughter from some eventual possible unmerited recognition, this mom chiseled a pretty deep crack in her daughter’s self-esteem. I doubt I could forgive myself for something like that.
Brian Doyle wrote this lovely essay about the heart in 2004, and says: “When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.”
One day, probably this year, it’s going to happen. Her little heart cracked right in two. When it does, I hope I am paying close enough attention to see the signs, to listen in the right way, to love and pick up the pieces and help her rebuild. But as strong as I want her to be, I just can’t knowingly participate in any kind of breaking.
How do you help your child through emotional challenges that you haven’t witnessed? How do you ensure that they will share them with you?