Out of necessity, I have given up a lot of control. A LOT. That’s what happens when you are outnumbered by your children. And your children’s needs. You have to let things go.
And here’s what has happened since I stopped wiping faces after every meal or even caring if they’ve had three meals rather than eight snacks: I’ve come to believe that me giving up a certain amount of control of my kids is good for everyone. It takes the pressure off of me. And for the kids? They learn risk, responsibility, consequences. Also pride. And humility.
But the big one? Self-esteem.
Bear with me for a minute. I used to coach a collegiate women’s novice crew team. Most of my athletes were first-year students, 18 or 19 years old. And after a few years of coaching, I realized that many of them, even most of them, had never been told they were anything less than the best. In fact, they had never been told “no.” It took me a while to understand this. No? A simple concept, yes? Apparently not. Many—but not all—had spent their lives in privilege. Every single one had excelled enough to attend this academically rigorous school. And they all wanted to be in the first boat. I had to tell a lot of them, “You’re not good enough.” (There are eight seats and a coxswain in a boat. The team was often more than 30 athletes.) And apparently I was the first person ever to say such a thing.
When someone came to me upset because she hadn’t been boated, I explained to her how she could work on her technique. Or what she could do to get stronger. I told her to keep working hard and to keep wanting to be better. And to work out with teammates who were better and stronger than she was, because I knew—from my coaching beliefs as well as my own personal experience as a collegiate rower in the very same program years before—that peer motivation would push her to be her best. And sometimes I had to tell her that no matter how hard she worked, even at her very best, she wouldn’t be as good as the top athletes on the team. That’s the reality of sports. There is a bench. Often these girls cried. Sometimes they quit. Sometimes, their MOTHERS contacted me. The overall message I was getting in these cases was that these athletes felt entitled to a seat in a boat simply because they wanted it. Not because of how they measured up to the rest of the athletes on the team. Not because of the time and effort that they gave in practices on and off the water. Not because of anything other than the fact that they wanted it. (After a few years I did a little research into the phenomenon of self-esteem entitlement. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I suggest the book Generation Me.)
What I realized then was that I didn’t want my kids to grow up with this same sense of automatic self-esteem—which I feel is a backlash to the generation of self-esteem boosting (especially girls’) that I grew up in. What I realize now is that the control I’ve had to let slide is good for my kids. If I am making sure they are never hurt—physically or emotionally—or always am telling them that they’re the best at everything they do, they’re not going to experience true self-esteem, or confidence, or pride. Or, dare I say it, failure. They’re going to think they’re great just because they’re here, not because of any achievement—no matter how big or small. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is the wrong kind of entitlement. The worst kind.
I’d rather have my kids in mismatched clothes, citing the alphabet incorrectly, with last night’s dinner on their faces than looking like a Gap ad and eligible for a Nobel prize at age 4. I will expose them to opportunities. I will encourage their interests. I will hug them when they’re hurt and when they score the winning goal. I will let them take risks, learn the consequences the hard way. I will expect them to be responsible for themselves (and for each other) early on. They will gain pride in their achievements, whether getting dressed on their own or hitting the ball off of the T. And when they make mistakes, they will learn how to apologize. How to be humble. But most of all, they will learn who they are along the way and that they should each be proud of that person. That very important self that each becomes.
As a mother, it is not my job to control my children’s behaviors and choices. It’s my job to steer them in safe directions and let them make their own choices. And on the way to encourage them to take the paths that will make them realize their true worth. To themselves, to each other and to their peers.Jen Writes, motherhood, three kids