Saturday, July 25, 2009

It Is Hard To Hide A Giraffe

Pride is largely considered negative - after all it is one of the seven deadly sins, if you subscribe to such notions. As a parent, however, I spend the better part of my day helping my kids feel proud of themselves. When they draw a picture and come running up to show me, their eyes shining. When they play sports -whether their team wins or not. When they do something big for the first time, or even something small. My son yelled "Momma! Come look at me!" the other day, and I came into his room to find him balancing on one leg. "Look!" he shouted, "I can DO it!" During the course of an average day, I have countless opportunities to help them feel proud. One of the things I marvel at the most about my kids, because they are still young, is that shame is largely still absent in their lives.

The delicate balancing act of helping my kids build pride and navigate shame can feel rather precarious at times. Finn, at 3, is boundary testing. He will do something he knows is wrong, hang his head dramatically, and say "I sorry, Momma" - all with a huge smile on his face. He is curious -if he is repentant enough will I still get mad? The difference in his demeanor when he does something wrong accidentally is startling. The other day he was running through the house and he bumped a table and knocked over a lamp, breaking it. His eyes widened in horror, he burst into tears, and ran away covering his face with his hands. When I came after him to talk, through his tears he said, "Let's don't talk about it". I tried as best I could to explain the difference between wrong and bad. That he can do things that are wrong - as in Against the Rules - but that doesn't make him a bad kid. That mistakes are a part of life, and that "I'm sorry" goes a long way.

My daughter, who is almost 7, is hardwired differently than Finn. She was never big on testing boundaries - for as long as I can remember she has been hugely fearful of being In Trouble. I can count on one hand the number of times I have witnessed her do something purposefully wrong (like the time she wrote "GRETA", in perfect penmanship, on the wall and tried valiantly to convince me that her one year old brother had done it). For the most part, she is so fearful of shame - a word she doesn't know, but a concept she clearly grasps - that she over-tries to do the right thing. She takes emotional ownership of nearly everything and everyone around her. She is just like me. One of my greatest challenges in being her Mom is not to over-identify - to help her find her own path, and not superimpose my own fears onto her.

Helping my kids find a sense of well being inside themselves, not from external influences, is difficult, especially when it is something I struggle with myself. I want so badly for my children to understand that the good stuff - accomplishment, pride, self-confidence, happiness - is often achieved through navigating the tough stuff. But in order to achieve that, there has to be some tough stuff. They have to make their own mistakes and learn from them. I have to resist the urge to gloss over things they do wrong, things they are afraid of, or ways they feel badly about themselves.

In my adult world, I have had my share of shame, of course. On a grander scale, as it relates to my recovery from alcoholism, I have learned that shame can be a great Teacher. I learned to face up to things that made me shameful, own up to my part, and let them go. I had to re-learn pride, understand that feeling proud of myself wasn't inherently bad. I discovered the difference between guilt and shame: guilt is feeling badly about something you did, and shame is feeling badly for who you are.

Pride, as it relates to a sense of accomplishment, is essential to well being. Not pride as a feeling of being better than someone else, of having more - it is a sense of balance within myself. If I don't pay attention to my small daily victories, the scales easily tip towards Shame. It is much easier for me to see my failings than my accomplishments. In the world of parenting, there are ample opportunities to feel shame - mothers in particular are hard on themselves. It is easy to get tangled in the web of comparison - to look at other mothers and see if, or how, I measure up. After all, there aren't many times when anyone stops and says "Great job handling that one, Mom." But I can't be a good parent if I don't feel good about myself. If I don't forgive my mistakes, try my best, and remember that I learn through trial and tribulation - I'm not going to get everything right the first time. I need to treat myself the way I treat my kids - I need to listen to the lessons I try to give them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the lessons they give me.

Last year Greta had an idea for a book, it was called "It Is Hard To Hide A Giraffe". She wrote and illustrated the whole thing herself. Each page says something you can't do with a giraffe, with an accompanying picture: you can't take a giraffe to the library, you can't take a giraffe to the pool, you can't take a giraffe to school. The last page says: but you can love him and hug him and call him yours.

It is hard to hide shame, it is hard to feel accomplishment and pride. And there are lots of things you can't do in this world. But, if at the end of the day you feel love for your family, yourself - even if it is the only thing you can do - it is a good day, and you should feel proud.


  1. This is such a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Wow, you're having a deep week. Lots of things to ponder.

    I too have given a lot of thought to the issue of pride and my kids. On the one hand, I want to celebrate their accomplishments and discoveries. On the other hand I want them to have a lifetime of listening to their own hearts and finding the joy and pride within themselves, not relying on me (or anyone else). It is a tough balance that I am sure I am no where near reaching as I celebrate EVERYTHING including moving a dish from the table to the counter or putting their pyjamas on after only 6 requests.

    I think pride is most satifying for me when it is overcoming something or maintaining something over the long hall. Not the fleeting accomplishments.

  3. I so want to see Greta's book!!!!!!!!! Fantastic blog from a fantastic Mom!!!

  4. this is a great post, again, per usual, i really look forward to your new insights - i published my book at it was free to do, however i did have to buy a book - this would be great for Greta's book and yours for that matter when you are ready to share your awesomeness with the world - peace for all

  5. I think it is fantastic how you are able to identify so many things...that's more then many right there!! You should be proud of that ;) We are faced constantly with the challenges of living in a foreign country--it could bring you to tears daily--but we choose to find the good in every bad, lessens the load & reminds us why we choose an AMAZING, entertaining, love filled challenging life versus a boring, easy life...

  6. I would *love* a copy of Greta's book, too.