This morning at breakfast Eleanor announced that she has seven super powers, and she wanted to list them for me. The first was reading. To be honest I missed whether or not she listed the next six because I was overwhelmed by the wash of relief. A feeling that do-overs are possible, that Mulligans can make a difference. Let me explain the back-story so you can appreciate the sense of parental redemption. To get to it, though, we first have to visit the back-back story, the one that begins in my childhood.
Once Upon a Time, I was an Indian Princess.
No. Seriously. I was. The reason that I bring this up (despite the unenlightened name and stereo-typed activities that took place back in the late 1970’s) is that there is one moment from that elementary school experience that has shaped me enduringly enough that it impacts my parenting all these years later.
In our YMCA father-daughter group we sat in circles. We sang songs. We made crafts. We built pinewood derby cars. We went camping. The trip happened in the late spring. In the Pacific Northwest. It’s not hard to imagine that the whole time was spent huddled in soaked tents watching the rain relentless pour from the skies. I think it was the final straw for my Dad, turning our first year of Indian Princesses into our last.
But despite the rain, or rather, because of it, the camping trip was pivotal for me, too. But in an entirely different way. You see, at the end of our year together, the fathers handed out awards to each young princess. Now it may well be that these awards were decided upon with haste and desperation, the leaders trying to come up with something, anything really, that even remotely matched each little girl. All I know was that I was awarded ‘Best Camper in The Rain’. And I’ve doggedly held on to that title ever since. Somehow it made me feel plucky, spirited, adventurous, optimistic. It was a label that stuck. A label that became part of my self-definition. There have been times over the years when, instead of groaning or whining or pouting I’ve said to myself ‘but I can do this! Because I am the Best Camper in the Rain!’ Even if I were saying it half in jest, I was thinking of it none-the-less, and it changed my choices. And it has made me incredibly aware of the labels we give others. Especially our children. So I was flabbergasted when I realized a few months ago I had made a labeling mistake. It wasn’t the misuse of a moniker, but its inverse. The implicit label left by silence.
Cole has always been a voracious reader. Up to this point Eleanor, by contrast, has been indifferent to books. She would listen or read, but she didn’t embrace it, there wasn’t a zest for it. I didn’t push it, I didn’t force it. I didn’t want to create a comparison between the two children in which she came up lacking. Instead of focusing on the written word, we had emphasized math as her superpower. She was MathGirl. Don’t get me wrong, she isn’t doing calculus, trigonometry or even long division. But as parents of a daughter we wanted to try and coat her in armor that protected her against the pervasive societal messages about girls’ abilities in math (and science and technology and engineering …but I digress).
But late this summer it finally dawned on me that maybe she didn’t see herself as a great reader, a lover of books, because we never gave her the feedback that she was. Eleanor has no way to create a relative comparison to Cole – with a five-year age gap he is currently better at everything. I became suspicious. Is she not gravitating to reading because we aren’t reinforcing it the same way we did for Cole?
And so, a stealthy propaganda campaign began. I thought it would take a herculean effort to change course. I was wrong again. It only took one small moment. In the first week of school, as she sat reading a new library book, I quietly whispered ‘Eleanor. Look! Look at the back cover of your book – it says this is for readers ages 8-11.’ Then I leaned over conspiratorially and continued ‘Do you know what that means?’ Her eyes lit up, the grin from her six year-old cheeks reached up to her ears as she shouted ‘I am Reading Girl!’
The subtle alchemy of parenting is sometimes more potent than we imagine. For Eleanor, books have become a source of magic. Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe it’s developmental, maybe it’s more. There is a fine line to be walked. We don’t want to Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah every moment of our child’s life, never allowing the space for them to grow their inner voice. Conversely, we need to be aware that when we are silent we are perhaps muting their potential. There is a gentle middle ground to inhabit when we come into awareness. What messages are we sending? Which labels are being received?
Eleanor has seven super powers. One of them is reading. As for the other six? I’ll keep you posted.