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Girl Most In Need Of A Visit From Stuart Smalley

Madeleine’s always had a fair amount
of self-confidence – it’s one of the things I love most
about her. I adore watching back video of her leaping and spinning
around the room at 2 ½ years old, yelling, “I’m
a very good dancer!” Or how about when Maddie went bowling
for the first time ever, and shouted over and over,
“I’m a champion bowler!” Getting to glimpse what
it feels like to be an uncensored kid, gloriously alive and
noncritical, is one of the great benefits of motherhood.

Over the past few weeks, though, Maddie’s taken an abrupt
turn into negativity and self-doubt. We’ll put on ballet
music and dance around for a few minutes until Maddie stops,
watches me speculatively, and says, “I can’t dance.
I’m not a very good dancer. I can’t do it. It
doesn’t look pretty.” “Oh, sweetheart,”
I’ll say, “you’re a beautiful dancer!”
“No!” she’ll cry in frustration. “I
can’t move like you do! I don’t know how to make myself
do it! I’m bad!” I’ll go on to explain that Mommy
spent several years learning how to dance like that, and that
there’s no right way to move your body joyfully. Sometimes
she’ll get back up, but more often than not the spell is
broken and the tutu comes off.

And it’s not just the obvious
things, like dancing. She’s easily defeated, throwing a book
aside and saying, “I can’t read it! I’m terrible
at it!” Or she’ll stop singing songs with everyone,
saying she can’t because she doesn’t know the words and
can’t sing pretty. In children’s chapel she’ll
sit next to a six-year-old who draws an anatomical bird and signs
her name, then looks back at her own paper with its dots and
squiggles. “And tell me about your bird picture!” the
teacher will say. “Well,” Maddie says, defeated,
“It’s got lots of eyes.” I see a pattern
emerging, and it troubles me.

I’ve brought it up with a few other people – mostly
moms with older kids, who have all assured me it’s a phase
kids go through. I’m sure that as children grow and their
awareness of things outside of themselves grows, they hit a point
of insecurity and self-judgment; it makes sense. But I can already
see a tendency towards perfectionism in Maddie and I worry that
this attitude may grow and morph into a relentless drive towards
perfect grades, or an eating disorder, or an obsession with winning
at a sport.

I was concerned enough to bring it up to Maddie’s
pediatrician at Maddie’s three-year checkup, who confirmed
that it is indeed a phase all kids go through, but that with other
parts of Maddie’s personality factored in we’ll want to
keep an eye on it over the years. So we’re working on a bit
of discriminate ego-boosting.

Simply saying, “Good job, honey! You’re so
talented!” isn’t enough with Maddie; she knows her
dancing looks different than mine, that her guitar playing
doesn’t sound the same as Daddy’s. We also know that
she is thirsting for “class”, for learning, so think
that some nuts-and-bolts instruction in a few areas will go a long
way towards reassuring her. To that end, we’re hoping the
swim lessons will help, and indeed see a big change in her at the
pool already: when she conquered putting her face in the water and
blowing bubbles, she knew our cheers and congratulations
weren’t made-up, and the triumph on her face showed she knew
she had done something amazing.

I’ve seen that work well enough that we’re trying it
out in other areas: Maddie and I are working on skipping so
she’s got a concrete physical skill to point at; her Aunt
Nikkie, an art teacher, has sat down with Maddie and a crayon and
talked about some basics of drawing; we sit at the piano and pick
out notes together. That sort of thing. I don’t want to turn
into the family that has six hours a day of instruction for the
precious darling protégé, but I think mastering some
basic skills like drawing a square and hopping from one leg to the
next give Madeleine a sense of accomplishment, show her that she
really can learn, that she’ll simply continue to grow and
become “better and better”.

So we’re keeping up with the informal practical lessons while
continuing the verbal affirmation. Judicious and truthful praise
goes a long way with Maddie, whose “Liar” meter can
sniff an exaggeration at 100 paces. At the same time, her
self-doubt craves hearing how “good” she is, and so the
ego keeps turning to us for support. I’m seeing the fruits of
this effort, and hope it continues.

Because I don’t think Stuart Smalley does house calls.


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