When Do We Tell Our Children They’re Not Perfect

 I remember sitting in a hospital bed four When Do WeTell our ChildrenThey're Notdifferent times with four different children and counting four sets of fingers and toes. I remember cooing over every dimple, freckle, and “jelly roll”. I even remember doing it with the babies of family and friends. And I remember thinking that these tiny little human beings were absolute perfection.

    So when do I start telling them that they aren’t so perfect? When do I let them in on the fact that their thighs are too big, their eyebrows too close together? When do I let them in on the fact that they don’t measure up against certain “beauty standards”?

     Now, this isn’t some anti-media, anti-Hollywood rant on how A, B, and C are destroying our children’s esteems and giving them an unrealistic standard of beauty before they’re even in grade school. No. I’m taking this straight to you, the parent; the person from whom the child first learns about unconditional love and body image. I’m taking this straight to myself.

      See, I never realized that I was destroying my son’s self-esteem and body image. It wasn’t until my son, who is tall and slender, came to me asking if we could exercise because he was getting “fat”. He then proceeded to pinch the tiniest bit of skin from his abdomen and look at it in disgust.

     I don’t fat shame. I don’t skinny shame. People are people no matter their shape or size and I don’t judge people over their physique, which is something I’ve done my best to pass on to my children. So where was he getting this idea that he was fat and needed to exercise?

     He got it from me talking about myself. He got it from the flippant comments I made throughout the days; comments about needing to lose weight, sighs and grunts and constantly tugging at my jeans; he got it from my cold dismissal of compliments from my husband.

     It didn’t take watching television or reading Cosmo for him to feel that he wasn’t living up to some standard of beauty. All he needed was to listen to and watch his own mother. What’s worse is that he looked at the things I hated about myself and wondered if I hated these same things about him. You can’t tell your kid he looks just like you and then proceed to complain about these same attributes in yourself. Kids are far more perceptive than we give them credit for; if everyone tells them they look just like their mom, and mom is always complaining about her eyebrows and hairline, they’ll take it personally.

     It’s up to us as parents, close relatives, or anyone who is in regular contact with a kid to establish a positive body image. We can’t call them perfect at birth and then tell them in so many ways that they aren’t so perfect later in life. We can’t make snide comments behind a coy smile that they look just like their daddy, whom they know you hate and think is ugly. *Pointed glance at a particular family member*

      Now, I’m not talking about personal hygiene here. I’m not saying don’t give your kid a nudge in the ribs when he/she hasn’t bathed in a few days and is beginning to smell like a locker room. I’m not talking about asking them to wash and brush their hair before you head out to a wedding or something. I’m not talking about teaching them how to dress for occasions and basic grooming etiquette. I’m talking about making them feel less than because of their size or shape. I’m talking about telling them to go eat a hamburger if they’re ‘too” skinny, or handing them a salad at dinner when everyone else gets a steak because you think they’re getting a little extra “baby fat”.

     You don’t have to outright tell your child they’re too fat, too skinny, too short or too tall. All it takes is them watching and listening to you from an early age. It takes you making a comment in passing about yourself or someone else. It takes you telling them they look just like their daddy or Aunt Mary with a sneer on your face.

     It’s our duty from the very beginning of their existence to teach them that their dignity and beauty are inherent. They can’t be devalued by what they see or hear from other people. Just because Martha doesn’t look like Peggy down the street doesn’t mean she isn’t beautiful or worthy of love and respect. Just because Jim doesn’t have washboard abs like the other guys in the locker room, doesn’t mean he isn’t handsome or worthy of love and respect.

     People are people no matter their shape or size…

“NO” is A Complete Sentence

   Sometimes I just don’t owe my children an explanation. _No_ is a complete sentence

     There, I said it. I bit the bullet. I have successfully swallowed my pride and admitted that 17-year-old me was wrong, wrong, wrong.

     You see, I made a promise to myself ten years ago that I would never be one of those parents who says things like because I said so, and you’ll understand when you have kids of your own. No. I swore to myself then that I would actually take the time to explain things to my children. If they couldn’t have or do something, I would explain why, they would understand, and there would be peace on Earth.

     I’m both laughing at myself and crying over my absolute naivety. At the time I didn’t understand that you really can’t rationalize with a three-year-old (otherwise known as a “threenager”).

     So what if it’s almost dinner time? Why the heck can’t I have an ice cream cone as a pre-dinner snack? This is ridiculous and unfair and you’re an awful person for saying no!

     So sue me for trying to establish healthy eating habits, kid. You’ll thank me for it later.

     But you see, kids have no concept of “later”. They haven’t yet grasped reason and logical conclusions. It’s not their fault, really. Blame that underdeveloped prefrontal cortex which controls things like emotions and impulses, judgement, and weighing outcomes.

     Now, some kids get it. At least, they appreciate the effort of something more than just “no, because I said so”. I was blessed with at least one of these, but reason still doesn’t negate that she wants what she wants. She is her own “woman” and wants to learn on her own why it’s dangerous to hang out in the middle of the street. She’s four going on fourteen.

     The fact remains: sometimes we just don’t owe our children an explanation. In my personal experience, with my own unique little snowflakes, “why” is a loaded question. “Why can’t I have that uber-expensive toy from the store?” Sure, I could explain that money is not an unlimited resource–not for this family of 7, at least. I can explain that the necessity of food and lights overrules the want for toys. And no, credit cards are not an unlimited resource, either, you silly goose.

     In my experience, “why” is never good enough. They don’t want explanations for the sake of knowledge so much as they want you to open the door to argument. They want to hear your reasons and then pick them apart, or they want to simply ask “why” until you’ve been sapped of every ounce of patience.

     And there is another reason why I simply stick with “no”. Not only is “no” easy, cut, dry, and time saving when you’re in the middle of dinner, but “No” is a complete sentence. No is a complete sentence when I won’t give my children something they want, it’s a complete sentence when they grow up and are being pressured into doing things they don’t want to do.

     I want them to understand in the long run–when they can finally comprehend “the long run”–that they don’t owe people explanations when they say “no”. No is no is no. They don’t owe anyone a reason why they don’t want to be involved in certain activities or with certain people. Their reasons are their own, and they’re not put out there for other people to pick apart and manipulate until those people get the desired result.

     Of course, given that my children have a razor-fine understanding of hypocrisy despite not being able to understand that money is a finite resource, I also allow them their absolute “no” from time to time. Not when I’m trying to get them to do chores, of course. But when it comes to making decisions based on their own likes and dislikes, I try to let them make absolute choices.

     “Do you want broccoli?”

     “No.”

     “Okay.” When really I’m thinking: k, it’s delicious and healthy but whatevs.*

*This also stems from the fact that our pediatrician set me straight on trying to force our children to eat certain portions and certain foods. Thank you, Doc!

     As always, the motto that will one day be engraved on my epitaph: Pick your battles. There are times when there is a true benefit, a true learning moment, in giving my children the “why” behind something I say, do, or ask of them. It’s all in the moment. Other times, when I just know that my four-year-0ld is looking for a fight, I stick to “no”. Well, I don’t always stick to it, but I’m getting better about just using this one word, followed by one of two responses, “asked and answered”, or “because I said so.”

     My 17-year-old self is cringing, slipping on the headphones, and playing that one Tool track over and over again.

Thoughts on Writing Vol. I

Some people read to escape reality, but it’s becoming more and more true that I write to escape reality. I write myself into another place, another time, another circumstance. The one consistency is that my other journey is never easy. There is still pain, turmoil, fear, and uncertainty. Because there is no such thing as a true life without these. There must be a darkness, there must be grief.

How am I to know the sweetness of happiness and peace unless I’ve tasted the bitterness of pain and war?