With Ethan still away at sleep-away camp, I glanced over at my other two kids. Savanna was with John across the pool. Repeatedly, she would jump from the edge into her daddy’s arms, and tirelessly swim back for another round. Meanwhile, Charlie was off in the distance with a friend happily vaulting off the diving board. As for me, I hung out on a chair near the side of the pool watching them all.
As pleasant as the above sounds, it was one of “those” days, and I was in no mood to flaunt. Perhaps I was simply missing Ethan, perhaps still tired from a friend’s dinner party from the prior evening, or perhaps for no specific reason, which is often the case.
And then, when it was almost time to go, I noticed a girl about the age of eight or nine pointing at me and whispering to her friend rather loudly. She then began to fold down her other fingers so that just one was sticking up on each hand, in order to demonstrate my physical appearance to her friend. It was clear she hadn’t noticed Charlie, who was still far from immediate sight. All of a sudden, I simply could not take her pattern of pointing, whispering, pointing etc… “Excuse me!” I said to her as she looked up. I was as surprised as she was by my outburst, but I rolled with it. “Where is your mom? I would like to speak with her.” Apparently nervous as if I was some type of two-fingered psychopath, she got out of the pool to either find her mom or, more likely, run away from me as far as her legs could take her. As she got up, I thought, “Oh crap, now what should I do?”
This poor girl clearly was just being curious and wanting to discuss what she had seen with her friend. However, she caught me in a moment of self consciousness, and on a bad day. There are just some days when the strength to be proud of my difference eludes me and I retreat back to that vulnerable little girl who would hide her hands when other kids stared. In that moment (of sanity), I decided that if the girl brought her mother to me, I would simply introduce myself with a smile and tell her that I noticed her daughter was focused on my hands, and perhaps she might be interested in reading last October’s issue of Storyworks (Scholastic) Magazine’s, “The Awesome Powers of Ethan Z.”
“Meg, let’s go!” John was already in the process of rounding up the kids, covering them with our colorful towels. At that moment, I was no longer embarrassed of my hands and feet, but simply of my behavior. She did not return, at least not before I left. I was so embarrassed I couldn’t even bring myself to share the experience with John. That night as I washed my face and brushed my teeth before bed, I reflected on the day. For all of my “Don’t Hide It Flaunt It” efforts, there is the still the reality that this philosophy sounds great, but it is hard, even still for me. I took a mental note to blog about this so anyone following knows that as far as I have come, I still experience these moments. I also thought to make sure that my kids grow up knowing that we all struggle with our own reality, even their mom.
About a month ago, a friend of mine passed me a CNN article written by LZ Granderson. The article was called, “Kid, you are not special,” and the premise involves how parents do their children a disservice by constantly sugarcoating their shortcomings to protect their feelings. The article resonated with me on various levels, including the fact that it began with the author recalling attending his son’s middle school band performance and that, in his words, at times it sounded as if half the band was playing one song and the other half was playing something totally different. After the performance, his son asked, “How was it?” “It was pretty bad,” Mr. Granderson replied. The boy, clearly accustomed to his father’s candor, agreed and smiled.
To me, LZ Granderson made his strongest point in the middle of his well-written article: “There is a middle ground where, ‘how things are’ and ‘how things can be’ meets. It is at this middle point where growth happens. But if parents, teachers and other adults in a child’s life never acknowledge, ‘how things are,’ no matter how good the intention may be then they are denying that child an opportunity to mature, to develop a strong sense of self-confidence that can only be earned by recognizing shortcomings and dealing with disappointments and failures.”
I fully agree with Granderson’s take on this, yet I admittedly haven’t always complied. For one, I am certainly guilty of praising one of my kid’s band’s performances more enthusiastically than was deserved. But to me, that feels innocuous. From my vantage, I would like to take the writer’s concept to the next level. As much as I agree that it is important to ensure your kids “face the music” of their own lives, I don’t believe the conversation should end there. Rather, why not also add a new category, ‘How things were,’ and offer your children a more honest window into your own imperfect world and experiences?
The same evening of the pool incident, we went out for dinner, and Charlie sat next to me while we were in the restaurant. “Mom, when you were a kid, what did you do when other children asked to see your hands up close? Did it bother you? Did you let them? I don’t want to let them.” In this moment, I thought about Granderson’s article. If I took the, ‘How things can be’ approach, then I should simply tell Charlie how beautiful he is, and that the kids find his hands fascinating, even neat. While that may be true for some kids, I was certain that was not the case in every instance and it was my duty to my son to shine the light on that reality. So instead, I took the unfiltered, ‘How things were.’ “Charlie, when I was a kid, other girls or boys would ask to see my hands too.” He listened intently. “Sometimes I think they were simply curious, and sometimes they thought they were even okay with them, but other times they were afraid, and even said they looked weird.” I watched his face fall, but I continued. “At first I was sad and hated that they were so focused. I even tried to hide my hands from them.” I paused as he sipped his chocolate milk. “The reality was, I didn’t know how to handle myself perfectly. But I noticed something. When I would show them my hands if they asked, the kid would move on to something else and stopped caring. If I didn’t, then they would continue to want the chance to see them the next time we were together.” Charlie digested both his meal and our conversation. “Ok, but I still don’t like when they ask, Mom.” I thought about his reaction and offered the best answer I could come up with in the moment. “Honey, you don’t have to like it. You simply have to accept that life isn’t fair, and that if you only expect people to behave the way you want them to, you will be constantly disappointed. Also, not everyone is going to like you, or like the way you look.”
And then, I looked at my son, and reflected back to the final nugget of LZ Granderson’s wisdom, “Charlie, everyone is special to someone, but no one is special to all. What matters is that you are special to us.”