Mama Ellen's

A place for thoughts and ideas on everything from family to fois gras.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Paper Dolls and Starfish

Most parenting books will tell you that kids are fragile and should be handled very carefully. And on a certain level this is true. But kids are also resilient. They can and should be taught to bounce back and toughen up. No, I do not believe the “spare the rod spoil the child” theory. Children should not be abused physically, mentally or emotionally. But all people, including adults can make mistakes or have a lack in judgement that hurt a child’s self esteem. We all try to avoid this dilemma. How the problem is corrected is what truly matters.

A lesson in Paper Dolls:
A few years ago I attend a parent/child class that discussed the self-esteem of children. We were each given a paper doll. As the parent educator read off phrases that parents may say to a child, we were supposed to tear of a piece of the paper doll if the comment was an esteem crusher. The size of the tear was to be based on the amount of self-esteem damage. Paper dolls were losing body parts left and right. By the end of the exercise, there were ripped torsos everywhere. I personally thought this was a really violent representation. The lesson they were trying to teach was that what we say can hurt a child so don't say anything bad, ever. Sorry folks, life doesn't always work that way.

JJ lost an Arm Today
I told my sister-in-law the paper doll story and that quickly became our shorthand for having a "bad mommy day.” She might call and say, "Well, JJ just lost an arm" at which point we would discuss what happened. Or I would call her to say Bug just lost a leg and explain my bad mommy moment. We all make mistakes. So then what?

Starfish
I decided, just last night, that I prefer to think of children as starfish. Life can be cruel and no matter how hard we try, they will get hurt. And hopefully we will give them the right tools to heal. I want my children to be starfish. If they lose a limb metaphorically speaking, I want them to be able to grow it back. I want them to know that although they may be slighted they don't need to be martyrs. They don't need to walk around, detached limbs flapping in the breeze. I want them to be like starfish. I want them to be able to rearrange themselves in order to fit where they want to fit. (Starfish can be symmetrical or change shape in order to wedge themselves between rocks for protection.) I want them to become what they want to become. I don't want them to be made victims. Then I asked myself, how would I make a starfish?

What do children need to learn in order to have self-esteem, recover after attack, and go on to be decent non-self-centered humans? I think the easiest and yet most complex answer is respect. They need to respect themselves. They need to respect others. They need to understand that others have the right to their own opinion, and that the right must be respected. Note that I don't say that the opinion should be respected, it is the right to have the opinion. They need to understand that everyone makes mistakes. And to admit one's mistakes, apologize, and ask forgiveness is essential. This shows respect of others and oneself.

Children are not as fragile as everyone believes. They are extremely strong. They can be extremely resilient. And they are extremely forgiving. As parents, when we screw up and say or do something that we fear will hurt our child's self-esteem, we should apologize, ask forgiveness, and then do everything in our power to not repeat the offense. A phrase we have used with our children is, "Sorry means we are not going to do it again." And although it doesn't always work out the way we want, there is a certain level of pride when we hear our 5-year old apologize to his little sister, and to hear her say, "I forgive you." No limbs lost.

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