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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Not Me

My eight-year-old daughter was cranky when I picked her up from school yesterday. As usual, it took a few hours before the real reason emerged. It seems that two of her best friends are teaching her “how to act cool,” and yesterday’s lesson involved swishing her shoulders provocatively when she walked.

“I just can’t do that, Mom,” Megan explained. “It just isn’t me.” The fact that boys might see her only exacerbated her main dilemma—how to be true to her self when her friends wanted her to be someone else.

I know adults who have spent years trying to figure out who they really are after being raised to hide their true selves. It takes many weekend retreats or years of therapy, work that can be an important part of spiritual and personal growth. The question for me as a parent, however, is how to raise children who know who they are from the start, who don’t have to work so hard to find themselves in their forties. Part of me wants to protect my daughter, to shield her from fashion magazines and second graders who give cool lessons. Another part of me thinks she might as well learn to stand up from herself in second grade since she’s going to have to do it for the rest of her life anyway.

“So what did you say to them, Honey?” I asked.
“I said, ‘No way. That’s just not me,’” she reported, her body language stiff and determined. “I don’t mind them giving me lessons in how to be cool. That’s my choice,” she emphasized, knowing that I don’t approve of the coolness lessons. “But some things I just won’t do. That’s not me,” she repeated, “but it’s hard for me to say, ‘No’ to my friends."

This has come up before, the idea that she’s willing to change somewhat for her friends, but within limits. Since I haven’t been able to debunk the notion of “cool,” I’m trying to help her know where her limit is and how to defend it. For a moment my mind flashes forward to adolescence and the dilemmas she might face in a few years—a horny boy whose affection she wants to win, friends who want her to try drugs—or in the years beyond, perhaps a boss who wants her to cook the accounting books. After all, there were many people involved in Watergate and only one Deep Throat, which makes me wonder what gives some people the courage to speak up. I remember Tim O’Brien’s point in The Things They Carried, that he might have had the courage to resist the draft in 1968 if he’d practiced being courageous as a child.

Teaching my daughter to know her limits and to defend them feels like an expression of both my feminism and my faith. Girls are especially at risk for losing their voices in the face of people telling them how to dress and walk, so it feels decidedly political to teach her to say, “No.” It’s also very Quaker, the idea of speaking our truth. Knowing what that truth is requires paying attention to our inner life, listening to something inside us, rather than all the external pressures.

In addition to listening to children, I think giving them “down time” nurtures this—time when they’re not doing homework, practicing piano, or watching TV. But I’m aware how little down time my children have right now, with all the end-of-the-school-year events and, still, the lice and daily nit-picking (see “Head Lice”). I’m trying to use the nit-picking as a bonding experience, an intimate time to talk with my daughter. “I know it’s hard to say, ‘No’ to your friends,” I tell her. “But I’m proud of you for knowing who you are. If they are good friends, they’ll accept that.”

Do other parents have ideas they want to share about how they’ve tried to nurture their child’s sense of self? I'd welcome your thoughts here.

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