So it seems I have caused a bit of a stirring with my controversial views and I wanted to set some things straight…
It’s probably easiest to start this post with a list of what I think it is most important that my children learn:
This morning, my three year old daughter susannah had a cry. It was over a strawberry. It was my fault entirely, I wasn’t thinking. I know perfectly well that she receives huge pleasure from biting into the biggest strawberry in the punnet. Yet I cut it in two. She is very expressional, (I try to encourage that, being an very sensitive human being myself, I am well aware that my children might be the same way), so when her large brown eyes fill up with tears and she looks at me I say: “Oh Susannah, are you sad because I cut the big strawberry?” She nods frantically and the tears race down her cheeks. I give her a cuddle and add: “I am so sorry! I know you like the big ones and I cut it up! How silly I am to forget.” Susannah replies: (as her eyes start welling up again) “Yes because now it isn’t big or massive anymore it’s small and there are no more big ones left.” Her feelings have been acknowledged, she is now on the mend- I know what I have to do to uplift things completely. I pick up the strawberry halves and put them in my eyes and say “Ahhh but with two pieces I can be mrs strawberry eyes! (I put on a funny voice) “Hello- pleased to meet you, I’m mrs Strawberry eyes!” Susannah’s tears subside and her face is now filled with glee and she jumps off her chair and asks me to hand her the strawberry pieces. She imitates me and laughs so much even the twins join in with the giggles. What could have been a huge meltdown has been turned around into fun and silliness.
This technique works most of the time and it is rare that Susannah has any kind of giant meltdown. If it does happen it is usually because I am irritable so not thinking properly about how she’s feeling. This is the key really. I hear myself saying on some days (for example) “Susannah, it’s just a strawberry and you are going to eat it anyway so who cares. Just eat it and be quiet.” This will upset her enormously and quite rightly really; by saying that, I have basically told her that what she is feeling is irrelevant and she should feel what I tell her to.
But who am I to devalue a person’s emotions like that?
The thing I think is so important, and that is so easy for any of us to forget is how small our children’s worlds are compared to ours. Susannah knows nothing about hunger or war or financial stress. Susannah is usually thinking about drawing or clothes or riding her bike. That strawberry and the complete excitement of biting into it’s giant, juicy shape was a big part of her morning. It probably is equal to the excitement I feel when the weather is warm for the first time all year. Cutting it up was like a wind and hail storm arriving just as I make plans and pack a picnic to enjoy the lovely weather. Horribly disappointing and ultimately changes my plans ahead.
I remember when Jim (the eldest of my three younger brothers) and I were about four and three years old and we were driving home from somewhere. Our mum promised us that we could stop at Little Chef on the way for some dinner. We were ecstatic! Not only did this prospect contain the adventure of eating out, but we were also given a lollipop after we had finished by that particular chain of restaurant. That was probably going to be the best thing that was to occur on that day, or possibly for all of that week. Sadly, we fell asleep in the car and mum didn’t want to wake us. I will never forget the overwhelming sensations of sadness, regret, disappointment and anger this (what felt to me was a tragedy) sparked for me. The devastation I experienced in that moment from missing out felt as painful as a break up. That’s how big it was to me. Because my world was so much smaller that it is now. But that shouldn’t mean my emotions were any less valid. It’s just different things that triggered them. As my world grew, so did my ability to control my responsiveness as have the things that make me respond. That’s what I try to remember when I think my children are over-reacting.
How often do you hear parents say “It’s not a big deal”, “Get over it,” “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” “There are far bigger things in life to worry about” and that kind of thing? But if we think about it, children react to things just like we do, except they have not yet learnt to understand these intense feelings or how to manage them. So how do these phrases help a child determine these things?! I think reacting to a child this way teaches a child that to feel is incorrect and to be ignored. How incredibly lonely we would all be if we were all treated this way?
Even as adults, we expect a certain emotional etiquette from each other in everyday life. We belittle the way others feel just because we don’t accept that it’s reasonable to feel a particular way over a particular thing. If we don’t share the reaction, we discount it. Surely that is the gateway to depression? Feeling isolated with our emotions.
You know that other expression “life is hard”. Couldn’t we, instead of using it to shut others up and expect them to deal with their challenging emotions in silence, use that as a reminder of how we all find things difficult at times? As a way to unite us as human beings and normalise any negative reactions to the everyday struggle we call life? Why is being sad, angry, lonely, disappointed is nothing to be ashamed of. We all feel this way from time to time and we all have our own reasons. Let’s stop expecting everyone to respond the way we think they should. Let’s accept their responses as theirs and be there for them.
Muzz and I have been together 7 years so we have had long time to grow together and understand how the other deals with certain things. Muzz’s family are some of the most wonderful people I have ever known and I am so thrilled to have them as family now. But they are not emotional. That is of course acceptable! Everyone deals with things in their own ways. But Muzz did not understand how sensitive and over emotional I am as a person because he had never really seen it before. It does not take a lot to make me burst into tears and at first Muzz would often resort to telling me to ‘dry up’. I am very over the top so you could hardly blame him. Sometimes I just get sad about how beautiful things are and how people let the exquisiteness pass them by. Did you ever read ‘the secret life of bees’? There was a character in that story called May Boatright- she would feel such heartache that she would write about it in little notes and hide them in a wall at the end of the garden. I am like a (slightly less dramatic) version of her. I feel so deeply and care so much it is a stirring. It keeps me awake. It is a pumping through my body that could quite frankly tip me over the edge if I didn’t monitor it frequently. Not everyone experiences emotions this intense on a daily basis, many people simply react to particular circumstances. And that’s what we like to expect from people, a bloody good reason to feel something. But why? To feel something is not a choice, it just is. So with time, Muzz learned to tolerate and relate to that side of me. And I have figured out many distractions to keep me from spending an unhealthy amount of time on one particular emotion. Tit for tat. And perhaps we could all think about limiting how much we compare ourselves to each other. Muzz has accepted that I am very extreme emotionally and I have accepted that he isn’t all the time. Both are common and respectable.
I spoke to a doctor recently that gave a good analogy for how people deal with their feelings. He said that not everyone in concentration camps experienced depression, but most people did. Meaning of course that in one of the most extremely bleak scenarios imaginable, still some people cope mentally, and others don’t even need to be in a severe situation to fall apart. We all have our breaking points and we don’t choose where they are. Conclusively, there is no right or wrong to these feelings, they just are and we should all try to respect what another person might be going through emotionally, even if we don’t understand it.
And when it comes to our children, I think we should do this will bells on. Surely it will help them develop a healthy understanding of their own emotions and a compassionate approach to others. If we can normalise their emotions by acknowledging how they are feeling and allowing them to talk about it then it will be easier for them to work out how to anticipate these feelings and cope with them. Often, that is all any of us need to feel instantly uplifted. Time, respect and compassion from the people around us.
A new years resolution that did wonders
So a few years ago my friend Tessa (who seems to be coming up a lot in my posts, probably because she is one of my most thought provoking friends) introduced me to the idea of living without competition. To the possibility of raising our children without teaching them to think in a competitive way. Intriguing…
Naturally I got defensive to begin with and said in response:
“Well I don’t think there is any harm in gentle competition”
But as soon as I uttered the words, I began to doubt that they were true. What I love about Tessa is that she never pushes these things. She plants the seed and leaves it with you. Being a naturally obsessive person I spent a few sleepless nights mulling this concept over. When I thought about it that much, I could not find a single example where being competitive did me any favours. In fact, it brought out my ugliest traits.
I suppose my first introduction to the antagonistic drive of needing to win was introduced through good old sibling rivalry. My brother Jim and I were always compared and spent many of our childhood years, fighting for the spotlight when it came to school and home. I remember the intense emotions so clearly. A mixture of pure awe at a person and unshakable jealousy. I don’t think this is a healthy way for anyone to begin their life. Yet so many siblings start off the same way.
This feeling whatever it was; this melancholy fervor that made me need to be better than others, remained with me. It never made a ‘fun’ evening of board games end well. I was often compared to Monica from friends. Sticking it to the loser if I did well and raging if I didn’t. Embarassing.
There are two sides to being competitive: One where you behave obnoxiously and are desperate to beat everyone (and have that be noticed) to feel good about yourself. The other where you know you have no chance of winning so you give up before you’ve even started. I have definitely experienced both, most of my life so far. And neither bring out the best in me.
I honestly think this is why so many kids loathe sport at school. Rather than teaching children the art of the pastime fairly and indeed the true, noble path to competing, schools generally search for kids with ‘potential’. Because they want their cabinets filled with trophies. All the average children are ignored and below average in my experience tend to irritate the teachers.
I was never picked for any team, ever. So I hated P.E. It made me feel bad about myself. So naturally I rebelled. Imagine a scenario though where teams were not the important part of school sports though? Where children are all being taught fairly and filled with the spirit of friendly competition. Where they are given the opportunity to take part and develop a passion for a sport even though they aren’t the best. Imagine all children being at ease with losing sometimes. And more importantly being used to that without it being and kind of tragedy or personal failure. Surely that’s a valuable lesson for us all to learn? And where better than the sports field?
I’m not going to bang on about educational settings here but i do want to give one more example where they often (I think) encourage children to perceive each other as rivals rather than peers:
Placing children in ‘sets’ for classes.
In my opinion, most children don’t actually know what they are ‘good’ at. They are told. By their parents and by their teachers. Placing a child in a ‘bottom’ set for anything is code for saying “You are shit at this”. I remember the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing that came with being placed in one of those lower settings well. Most teenagers are familiar with these emotions. I think this is one of the factors. Again, for me, it made me give up without even trying- my philosophy being “why bother if I’m crap? I’ll just mess around until I enter a class that I’m good at.”
I also realise that my reasons for misbehaving in these classes was down to feeling incompetent. Making people laugh made me feel better about myself. So rather than sitting there sadly hating myself for being ‘stupid’ (which is what I thought I was thanks to the set placings), I was ‘naughty’. The looks of hatred and yells of impatience from the teacher confirmed these two things- 1) I was indeed a bad kid 2) And a stupid one. A vicious cycle that did me no favours in those classes, or for my well being as I developed as a person. If people view you as ‘bad’ you start to see yourself that way. Same with intelligence. So I think this idea helps create the kids with low self-esteem and attitude problems and often, it doesn’t change for them.
This was the environment that first made me resent learning. And all kids are born with the desire to learn, are they not?
In the higher sets I liked the work. But this is where the atmosphere was most competitive. We were all secretly thinking, “We are all great at this cause we are in here, but who is the best?”
Who could get the best grades?
Who could answer questions first?
Who could answer questions the best?
The amount of straight A friends I have that suffer with huge anxiety is very interesting. They can’t sleep during exam time. They shake, cry, sweat with panic and work, work, work. And if they don’t get that A, they hate themselves. Completely. They are ashamed! What kind of world are we living in?! Shouldn’t learning go back to being that drive and passion we were all born with? Not a constant strive to do better than last time? Or better than everyone else? It’s not healthy.
So after tossing and turning for nights on end. I decided that being competitive for me (and probably most) is a horrible trait engrained by nurture, not nature. Therefore, I could eliminate it from my personality. I could retrain my brain to no longer think that way.
You know what? It worked.
Obviously the people around me have a lifetime’s worth of evidence to contradict me here, but with any change, it takes time. It’s been three years. In another ten, people will no longer see me as a maniac that needs to win. I am confident of that.
The way I did it was by focusing on the feeling after winning when ever I started to feel the gut stab and horrendous desire to ‘outdo’ others. I concentrated on the fact that no-one actually cares. The axiom that I can’t scroll back in my mind and work out who won which game and when? Because ultimately it doesn’t matter, it has never mattered. I realised the people I am drawn to are not people that need to beat others at things but people who want to learn throughout their lives regardless of what others think of them. That is the kind of person I long to be. Someone who is at ease with my intelligence and feeds my intellect at my own pace and relishes it. I strive to grow into someone who admires others without envy. Someone who can laugh at myself if I do a bad job at something. I want my children to possess this qualities too. And I am a main influence to them!
Since this revelation, I am actually growing more secure in my own abilities. I now embrace this strange, relaxed freedom that comes with not needing to be the best, or funniest, or skinniest, or smartest etc etc. I am definitely less judgemental of others which makes me more compelled by people. I genuinely want everyone to succeed! It feels so warm and wonderful. I even have a better body image and expectation for myself and others. All in all, I am a happier, healthier person without competition.
Also (I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant) my eldest daughter, she is glowing from these changes already. Susannah is three, so she came just at the right time. If she loses at a game she still enjoys it and wants to play again! I hope I can keep this going for her. I feel so proud when she sings “wah wah wah wah’ with a big smile on her face as she slides her playing counter down a snake rather than up a ladder.
Another thought that occured to me is that most things are subjective anyway. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that. If we apply this logic to most situations, no-one is bad or great at anything. We are all different and interesting. So next time a friend shows us a painting that we think is terrible, maybe we should try and see it for what it is, a little piece of them, instead of trying to rate whether it is any good. If it makes the person doing it happy then who bloody cares?
Anyway, there is a reason that people often die before anyone appreciates their work. Because people are stuck in their ways. So I reckon, what ever we enjoy we should do it with bells on even if the people around us, the critics, our parents or teachers tell us we are terrible at it. They can all go jump. Because we are all entitled to revel in things regardless of other people’s standards.
If we could all learn to love what we do and cherish doing it, and feel the same to the people around us, maybe we would all be more confident, laugh more and take bigger leaps. Because honestly, who are we to judge anyway? We might not be right about everything…