Ages and stages. That’s what psychologists call it, right? Ages 0-1 parents are concerned with the bare necessities: food, mood, and sleep. Ages 2-3 we enter the world of potty training, temper tantrums, and finding that balance of independent play and protecting them from tumbling down the stairs. 4-5 is all about learning letters, numbers, and manners (burping at home is fine, burping at a restaurant is not fine, etc). Then there is daycare, preschool, and starting kindergarten and all the separation anxiety behaviors that get thrown into that mix. All milestones, each with its own set of worry that is so fierce, they may as well include a box of hair color to cover the grays along with pregnancy tests.
As you all know, I have a six year old daughter named Devon. Since she was in my belly, I have called her Devoncakes. No one else calls her this. It’s not a nickname that catches on. But it’s my name for the little girl who made me a mama. She, more than anyone, has motivated me to be a woman who is strong, independent, and confident more often than I’m not, which is pretty much the opposite of me up until parenthood.
It is because of Devon that I now smile for photos instead of cower behind a smirk. It is because of her that I try things I’m scared of like making career changes, meeting new friends in a new town, or signing up to help out at her school. It is because of her that I take care of my body, dress like I put some thought into it, and present myself in a way that does not scare the general public.
I do all of this so she can have the confidence that I did not have as a child. Books (and Oprah guest-experts) tell us that if we want our daughters to have high self-esteem, then we need to model it. If we want our daughters to feel beautiful, then we must feel beautiful. And if we want our girls to believe in themselves, then we must believe in ourselves.
So from day one of becoming a mother, I have done just that. I have worked on myself, spun my colorful childhood into a rainbow, read books, meditated, followed my gut, tried new things, learned from mistakes, taken myself seriously, laughed at myself seriously, asked myself, “what would my parents/Ghandi/Nancy Wilson do?” I have been generous with my praise and not once called out to her Fred Sandford style, “hey dummy, give me a hand in the kitchen.”
And you know what? My daughter still questions her self-worth and abilities. And lately her self-esteem is down the toilet, so pardon my pottymouth, but fuck me.
Where the hell is this coming from? I want to scream at her, “But you are so smart and funny and beautiful! How can you possibly not believe in yourself?” And then I want to scream at myself, “where did I go wrong?” And then I want to scream to no one in particular, “why didn’t someone warn me about this?” There’s a crapload of books on getting your baby to sleep through the night, but where are the books on getting your six year old to not be terrified of failure? How the hell did I miss out on that one because it’s a biggie!
She started showing signs of this in Kindergarten. She was afraid to speak up so she would skip activities that she wasn’t sure how to do. When she excelled in math, the teachers tried to get her to do some more advanced stuff, and she refused because she didn’t want to do it wrong. She’s not shy anymore but still avoids tasks that she doesn’t excel at immediately. The other day, she tried to make a paper airplane and burst into tears saying, “I can’t do anything right!”
And now she’s having nightmares that have her so scared she’s crying several times during the day thinking about them. She doesn’t want to sleep alone in her room. She doesn’t want to stay the night with her grandparents “because of my dream.” She doesn’t want to do anything without me. And she’s not being manipulative. Manipulation was when she faked a cry to get a free popsicle from the ice cream man. She’s crying real tears and calling out for mama like she did when she was two years old.
We hear about the terrible twos and the teenage years, but I don’t remember anyone saying, “watch out for year six…it’s the year of thunderstorms, nightmares, and a whole new slew of separation anxieties.”
So, I visited the bookstore and did what I always do when I’m lost in life: I skim through books I’m too cheap to purchase. After skipping over a thousand baby books, I found the handful on parenting children. One of the books was Po Bronson’s The NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, or as I like to call it, Yet Another Book Explaining How We’re Parenting Wrong. The first chapter basically says that praising kids blindly (wow, that’s the best drawing of a dragon I’ve ever seen!) actually harms their self-esteem.
Great. So, telling my daughter she’s smart makes her feel stupid, and telling my son he’s so handsome makes him feel like an ogre. Freakin’ fantastic.
After reading that, I started balancing my blind praise with complimenting her efforts, as in “Wow, you’ve been practicing kicking the soccer ball. Way to go!”
And then something remarkable happened. She instantly gained the confidence of a thousand Oprah’s. Hah. Joking. Actually, what happened was while tucking her in to bed, she somehow revealed that mommy and daddy never make mistakes. Actually, no one makes mistakes because mistakes are wrong.
What? How the hell could she think this? I make about a kagillion mistakes by lunch. She should know this better than anyone.
I asked her to clarify in case I misunderstood.
“Mistakes are wrong,” she said.
And then I got it. Wrong. As in right and wrong. You did that wrong. It’s wrong to hit your brother. You’re answer is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
She’s been associating mistakes with wrong behavior because of our motherflipping English language and double-meanings! How many years has she been thinking it’s wrong to be wrong?
So, I attempted to demonstrate the difference between wrong( behavior) and wrong (mistake) by doing what I do best, making an ass of myself. I slapped my husband and asked the kids, “Was that wrong or a mistake?”
“Wrong!” they shouted.
Then I fell off the bed. “Was that wrong or a mistake?”
And then she fell asleep in her room, where she stayed the entire night. No bad dreams. And she woke up feeling pretty good about herself.
I know it’s not the end of the discussion, and Devon’s still going to battle self-esteem issues just like the rest of us humans. The only relief I have is knowing that we have faced many other ages and stages, and like a bad dream, this too will pass. And just when we get comfortable and feel confident in our parenting again, another stage will kick us in the ass. So for now, my Devoncakes is upside down. She’s not being the confident girl that I know her to be, but I know that kid is still in there somewhere. I think she’ll come out again, and when she does her skin will be a little thicker. She won’t know it, but her soul will have a “I survived the sucky sixes” quality that will give her a little more swagger on the playground.