When I was an angst-filled teen I remember a family member saying to my mother “It’s so much easier raising boys. I’d rather raise 10 boys than 1 girl.” I recall feeling rage, initially, which morphed into a kind of shocked surprise. I had no idea that girls, as a group, had a reputation for being difficult. I thought it was just me! Perhaps I wasn’t as alone as I had felt after all. Looking back on those cringe-worthy teen years, I suppose it was not surprising that one might think raising me was a tad more difficult than raising my brother. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to meet up with boys, got sent home from a junior high dance for being completely drunk, and so on and so on. When my parents suggested I should see a psychologist for my bizarre behaviour, I informed them indignantly that I was completely normal, which would be proven when my little brother started rebelling in the same way when he got to be my age (I think it was 14). Unfortunately, my hypothesis was flawed. My brother was a perfect child who grew into a perfect teen. He never got into trouble. Not once. (He may dispute that). So much for that!
When I discovered that I was pregnant four years ago, I knew that the little bean growing inside me was going to be a girl. She had to be. All of the first born children in my complicated family tree have been women. I was right. Now I have my own daughter (which still seems surreal). Dave, my partner in crime, is already preparing for her tumultuous teen years by practicing the line, “Go ask your mother.” Having worked with troubled teens for several years, I am well aware that many young women struggle at the age that I did, 13 or 14 (or in my case from 13-21). It seems to be a well-known phenomenon. Being one who handles anxiety by being as prepared as possible, I have developed a list. It mostly represents a blind hope that something I do now can help to inoculate her from the misery of being a teenage girl. Or at least make it slightly more bearable.
1. Encourage mastery
Mastery, in my experience, involves two things that are equally scary; failure and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Some of the most important learning I have experienced, however, is when I was nudged out of my comfort zone. Even (maybe especially) as an adult, I think it is important for us to do things that scare the crap out of us. It helps us discover that we’re made of stronger stuff than we had thought, that we can master more than we thought possible.
I remember one moment distinctly when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I had been taking piano lessons since I was 5 and had been asked to play in front of the whole school. I had agreed without comprehending how terrifying it would actually be. I stood backstage waiting for my turn. I could feel my whole body shaking with anxiety. “What if I screwed up? Everyone would laugh. It would be the worst thing in the whole world. I can’t do it.” As those paralyzing thoughts were going through my head, I experienced something completely extraordinary. I can only describe it as another part of me appearing from within, rising up through my body and becoming me. This part was totally calm and confident. She knew, without a shred of doubt, that I would play beautifully. My body stopped shaking. I became totally focused, like I imagine athletes are right before the shot of the starting gun. I walked to the piano with confidence and I did play beautifully.
That part of me may never have appeared had I not needed her to help me navigate something new and scary. She has come to my rescue many times since and is the source of much of my confidence. As a result I encourage my 3 year-old daughter to try new things and to take risks (within limits of course). I do my best to encourage curiosity by providing opportunities to explore the world around us. Walks in the forest are adventures where anything can happen. At the playground I let her climb things that the worried part of me thinks might be too high. When she falls I hold her and soothe her, and when she’s ready, I encourage her to try again. I am there to offer small, barely perceptible assistance when she needs it, but not more; what Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development”. The look on her face when she has mastered something difficult, all by herself, makes my heart soar.
2. Encourage generosity and gratitude
In a world that seems to be ever more focused on consumption, generosity seems old fashioned, like hand-written letters. I admit that I am not immune from its seductive power. Maya is an only child and I like to spoil her by buying her things. Part of it is likely guilt from working full-time. I want her to know how much I think about her when I’m not there. I tell myself that spoiling her now is inconsequential, as she won’t remember any of it, but the truth is that I am creating a set of expectations that will be difficult to break. Consumerism reminds me of addiction. It fills people’s feelings of emptiness, but it is a temporary fix. The good feelings that come from new things are illusory. There is no substance to them. I remember reading a study about people who were chronically depressed, helpless and hopeless. What turned their lives around was not consuming. It was giving; giving of their time to their communities. It gave them a sense of purpose, that what they did mattered. Their emptiness was filled up with something real, solid and lasting; generosity and compassion, which in turn led to self-confidence and a feeling of being connected to the world around them.
A definition of generosity that really challenged me was to be given something you coveted and to then immediately, with an open heart, give it away. I wondered if I was even capable of that kind of giving. There were possessions I had that I treasured and couldn’t imagine giving away, let alone with an open heart. So I decided to experiment with this. I had dolls that my grandmother had given me. She had died several years before and they were the only things I had left from her. The thought of something happening to them filled me with grief, as if I was experiencing her loss all over again. But the dolls were not her. If they all burned in a fire I would still have her memories, would still feel her love. I decided to give one of them to a friend of mine who would take good care of it. That act of giving was very powerful.
Giving invariable leads to feelings of profound gratitude from recognizing just how much we are given. I have often found that in encouraging myself to feel gratitude, to really feel it right into my bones, is the best antidote to depression. It opens my heart, helps me to understand how connected I am to the world around me, how much I am loved.
Even though Maya is not yet 3, and in the “mine!” stage, I try to encourage generosity. I try to involve her in daily routines like cooking and cleaning to show that we are a giving, helpful family. We put together care packages of her old clothes, books and toys and talk about how we are going to give them to the new baby and how happy the new baby will be to receive all of her things. Weeks later she will talk about how the new baby will be “sooooo happy” to have all of Maya’s clothes.
At Christmas Maya helped me wrap presents for my aunt’s mother, Old Gran. We talked about how much we hoped Old Gran would like them and how happy she would be to receive this gift from her. Maya was so excited to give her these presents. Every twenty minutes or so during dinner she would get down from her chair, walk to the Christmas tree, take them from under the tree and bring them to her. “We have presents for you Old Gran!” she would exclaim excitedly and with a huge smile. Even though she likes presents, I have yet to see that huge a smile on her face when she opens them.
Even mundane acts of generosity are important to acknowledge. During our dinners together I will make a point of thanking Dave (when I remember) for making us such a delicious dinner. Now Maya on her own will often say “Thank you Daddy (or Mommy) for making such a delicious dinner! It’s so yummy!” Of course it’s a daily commitment; she still demands things with a furious look on her face (I want JUICE!!!), we still have crying fits when she doesn’t get what she wants, and when she has opened her last present at Christmas or on her birthday she be disappointed that there aren’t more (“Are there more presents?”). It is a work in progress.
3. Encourage wisdom
Looking back on my youth I often marvel at the fact that I survived. I got myself into so many messes that it is truly by the grace of god that I made it through adolescence relatively unscathed. Since Maya has been born I have wondered, often, what I can do to help her through her own messes. How will I help her know who to trust and who not to? How do I help her embrace life to the fullest, but with awareness that there are people out there who may want to hurt her? The only thing I have been able to come up with is helping her to trust and honour her own wisdom.
One of the most difficult lessons in my own life has been to acknowledge and value my wisdom. There have been countless times where I have experienced intuition or a gut feeling and ignored it to my peril. In the aftermath I would wonder, “Why I had ignored my own knowing?” It has been a long process filled with successes and failures to learn to first recognize my knowing, and second, to give voice to it. I grew up in a time where children were supposed to be seen but not heard, although this was changing. The unfortunate consequence of that is that a child’s fledgling knowledge about themselves and the world around them is also silenced. It is in that silence that terrible things can happen.
When I was in grade 4 my science teacher, Mr. Alan, was overly friendly with the little boys in the class. He constantly brought them up to the front of the class and put his hand up their shirts to pat their backs, and patted them on the bum. He never called on the girls, despite me having my hand up to answer every question. I remember thinking that the way he touched those boys was not right. No other teacher did that. But instead of trusting that knowing and speaking out, I decided that my unease must be wrong. My mom and dad touched me like that and they are adults, Mr Alan is an adult, so it must be okay. My mother remembers me telling her that Mr. Alan didn’t like girls. I wonder if she had been curious about that statement, if she had asked me more about it, if he would have been caught sooner. One day when I arrived at school we were told that Mr. Alan was no longer a teacher, but not why.
I know that standing up and giving voice to one’s intuition is a scary prospect. It makes you vulnerable, the lone deer in a crowd of wolves. There is a reason that people don’t do it, that they conform to the silence. It takes courage to speak up, particularly when all you are relying on is the little voice inside your head or that feeling in your gut that is telling you that something is not right. I want to help Maya develop the courage it will take for her to trust and give voice to her own wisdom. I have already shut her down once, out of embarrassment. It was at the Christmas dinner at my cousin’s house. Their two boys are older than Maya and weren’t particularly excited to play with her. Dave and I spent a good chunk of the evening trying to lure her away from them and their toys that they didn’t want her wrecking.
At the end of the evening, when we were at the door getting our shoes and coats on to leave, Maya looked at my cousin Matt and his wife Tracey and said, calm as can be, “I don’t really like Matt and Tracy.” I was mortified. I told her sharply that she was being silly and to please stop it. She repeated herself, more forcefully. Tracy, bless her heart, said “If that’s how you feel Maya I think you should just go for it.” I could feel the discomfort, and heard Tracy’s dad jokingly tell Maya, who was 2 1/2, “that’s my daughter I’ll have you know!” I suspect he was only half joking. I just wanted Maya to be quiet. Instead, she used a version of a line I had used to try and explain why some kids won’t play with her. I would say to her “Some kids are friendly Maya and some kids aren’t. That’s just how it is.” Still calm, Maya held up her hands in an “I can’t figure it out” posture, and said to Tracy “Some people you like and some people you don’t.” And on that note, we left.
What bothered me later wasn’t the fact that she expressed herself, I was sure it was directed more at the boys, but the fact that I had done my best to silence her, purely out of embarrassment. I never did ask her more about it.
Since then I have made a conscious effort to ask more questions and to coax out her own knowledge into the open. When she asks her million “why” questions, I more often than not respond with “why do you think?” I encourage her to tell me stories, instead of me telling stories to her. I am trying to refrain from offering my opinions on her accomplishments, and instead invite her to explore her own opinions. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
I’m sure that as I ponder this question of raising a daughter more steps will come to mind. What are your thoughts? Your experiences? What have I missed?