Wednesday, December 7, 2011
December 7, 2011 ~ Day 363
Whose Side Are You On?
It looks like I've caught myself trying to live through my kid in the past 24 hours, and bungling my words right and left.
I managed to genuinely hurt his feelings, which sucks.
Today happened to be "Pajama Day" at my six year old son's school. One of those "school spirit" type events where children get to be goofy and silly in their pajamas while learning.
I loved those days - both as a child and as a teacher.
Dress up days in elementary school gave me the chance to liberate myself from the role of awkward youngest sibling wearing hand-me-down pinafores and jeans bought on sale (in bulk) at J.C. Penneys.
On dress up days, I got to be anyone I wanted to be. My parents understood the fun of costumes and supported my eager delight in 'crazy hair day', 'crazy hat day', 'crazy sock day' and oh heck, any old crazy spirited day.
Decades later as a teacher, I loved to see the creativity my students put into the funny dress days their student body council put together. I always admired the kids who had the spunk to really "go for it" and dress up in whatever silly, crazy or fun fashion they felt like - without caring about what anyone else was thinking.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my confident students were also often my popular students.
Human beings gravitate toward others who are comfortable in their own skin. Even confident children radiate power.
Sensitive, insecure children who are NOT comfortable within themselves... awkward, shy children... well... those children are a lot like me as a kid. Not the "me during spirit week" (always a more brassy, ballsy version of my true self) but me the other 175 days of the school year.
Gawky. Overly sensitive. Trying too hard to fit in.
That was me at the age of six. And sixteen.
* * *
My son is six years old. As I've mentioned, today happened to his "Pajama Day".
"Ooooh honey!" I exclaimed yesterday when I got the eBulletin. "Pajama Day! That will be AWESOME!!! I'll wash up your best pajamas. Maybe the ones with the snowboards on them? Or would you prefer the basketballs?"
"I don't want to wear my pajamas to school."
"I don't want to dress up."
"But honey, it's going to be so much fun!"
"I don't want to."
"Son, don't you remember the last time you didn't want to dress up? Remember how at Halloween you assured me that none of the other kids at school were going to be dressing up in costume? And then you turned out to be pretty much the only kid in the whole school that wasn't dressed up? And you felt sad and embarrassed?"
"I don't care."
"Well, how about you wear your pajamas and put a change of clothes in your backpack? Then if it turns out that a lot of kids aren't dressed up, you can just ask your teacher to go change in the bathroom?"
"But hon - what if you turn out (again) to be the only kid in your class not dressed up?"
"I don't care. I am embarrassed. I don't want to wear my pajamas to school."
"Won't you be embarrassed if you are the only kid NOT wearing them?"
"I don't care. Pajamas don't belong at school. I'm not wearing my pajamas."
* * *
My husband chimed in, supporting my point of view.
"It'll be really fun, little man. You should do it. I always dressed up on those days growing up. We had a great time."
My son held steadfast, eyes filling with tears but voice belligerent.
I made one final counter-offer:
"How about I just wash your pajamas and put them in your backpack," I sighed. "And if you get to school and everyone else is dressed up, you can change into them?"
He didn't answer, which optimistically I took as a yes.
I washed the soft brown flannel snowboard pajamas and put them in the bottom of his backpack.
* * *
At 12:30pm this afternoon, my daughter and I strolled up to collect her brother from school. It was half day. He'd attended, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Pajamas stuffed into the bottom of his red backpack.
We arrived just in time. The school bell rang on cue, and students began to stream out of the open door of his classroom.
I watched to see what was coming toward us.
Pajama. Pajama. Pajama. Pajama. Pajama. Pajama... you get the picture. Pajamas everywhere.
It looked like all of the kids - girls AND boys - in my son's class had worn their pajamas. Monster pajamas. Bunny rabbit pajamas. Robot pajamas. Flowered pajamas with little hearts. One little girl wore a blue, full body zip-up footie pajama... with no shoes!
Then came my kid. Sour-faced and defiant. Still wearing his t-shirt and green khaki shorts.
He stared me down with an angry, hurt look.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"WHY ARE YOU STANDING SO CLOSE TO THE CLASSROOM?" he hissed.
"You're TOO CLOSE!"
"Oh. Wow. Ok, sorry about that. So, how was your day?"
His lower lip trembled but his voice did not quiver. Actually, it was filled with accusation.
"Mom - YOU WERE WRONG. I *wasn't* the only kid not wearing my pajamas. There were TWO other kids too. Without pajamas. Pajamas DO NOT BELONG AT SCHOOL." He seemed pretty wrought up.
"Oh, okay. Well, that's great. I'm glad you feel good about your decision. So, how was the rest of your day?"
We veered toward the school gate and began the long walk home.
* * *
As it turned out, my boy was in a real funk for the remainder of the day. By 2pm he'd had a massive meltdown (crying, screaming) and ended up in his room for a calming down period.
I had a lot of time to think.
"Is all of this a sign that he is too similar to me... to the way I was as a kid? Is he trying too hard to be cool and not having confidence in himself? Is he too sensitive, like his mama?"
My son does at times seem painfully conscious of what the other boys and girls around him are thinking. Even when he totally misjudges a situation, like today. Not dressing up because he was embarrassed and wanted to fit in... then angry because he didn't dress up when the other kids did.
Later though, I began to see everything from a different point of view.
"Maybe he really didn't want to dress up. In which case, he was going against the popular grain to stay in his normal clothes, rather than bowing to peer and parental pressure to put on pajamas! Maybe today was actually a sign of great confidence!"
Is my boy is just beating to his own drum - as he always has - or is he shying away from any potential embarrassment?
* * *
I learned something sad today. It really shames me to admit it, but here's the unvarnished truth:
Late this afternoon I realized that my six year old son views me as one of "them". As I tried to talk with him about feeling more confident in himself, he burst into tears.
"Your words make me feel BAD," he sobbed. "Whose side are you ON?"
To my immense regret, my boy apparently sees me as someone who judges him. He genuinely felt yesterday and today that we, his parents, were trying to turn him into somebody he's not.
This realization breaks my heart. From now on I need to work a lot harder to keep my mouth shut as he figures things out for himself socially... so that, no matter what, my boy knows without question that his father and I are his biggest fans.
If I'm not really conscious and careful about my role in his upbringing, I may unwittingly thrust my own adult perspectives upon him. My well-intentioned words may be hurtful to him. I may try to mold or shape him without even realizing.
I don't really want to change my son. He is incredible just the way he is. Every single unique trait, quality or quirk in that child is special to me.
I yearn badly to help him avoid my many mistakes. Sometimes this almost primal desire to protect him from awkwardness trips me up as a parent. I discover myself trying to make his choices for him, save him from what I perceive to be potential mistakes. Stop him from acting like me.
Parenting is tricky. I see all of my own challenges reflected right back at me in my children. They say the things you dislike the things in other people are the things you dislike the most in yourself. I don't dislike my son. I adore him. Parenting is just way more complicated than I ever imagined it to be.
I'm busy trying to better myself as a nearly-36 year old human being but I need to remember in the process to leave my 6 year old "mini-me" alone and let him work on himself, at his own pace. He's just a kid, trying to figure it out.
It's really time for me to step back. Way back.
My job as a parent is to protect my children from physical danger and provide them with a foundation of love. To keep those lines of communication open and build that sense of trust and mutual respect. Most importantly - I need to let my kids know that no matter what else happens - they will always have a mother who loves them for who they are.
I can't stop my kids from making mistakes, or from standing out right at the moment when they most ardently desire to fit in. I can't stop them from being socially awkward, shy and sensitive.
It isn't appropriate for me to try to navigate the complex social interactions of childhood and adolescence for my three favorite little people. Even if I wanted to, the world is different now than it was thirty years ago when I was six years old... and technology has made childhood different too.
No, I already have a role to fill - a crucial role - that I can't afford to get wrong.
I'm his mother. That makes me so lucky. I'm the one that gets to applaud and hug and remind him in his low moments why he is truly such an incredible human being.
I really screwed that up today.
To my son ~ I'm so sorry.
Whether I've shown it well or not I'm truly proud of you, just the way you are. I'll try a lot harder in the future. Please know that I'm one million percent on your side.