I want to tell you a story. When I was a middle schooler, I was a mean girl. I know. I’m so ashamed. No really, I am utterly ashamed. I was pretty and popular- most likely because I was pretty and certainly not because I was the type of person any reasonable parent would want their child to be friends with. And as a mean girl, my values were centered around snapping my quick-witted tongue at whatever poor victim could catch it and rejoicing in victory at how cute and clever I was. I am cringing just writing it. And here’s the actual story I have to tell, a story that changed my life forever.
One day, as I stood in the bathroom on the eighth grade hall with my friends with our matching Eddie Bauer cross-body purses and our shimmery strawberry flavored lip balm, brushing our hair and oozing whatever gossip our 13-year-old minds could come up with, I threw out some pretty biting comments on a classmate’s outfit. Looking back that commentary was foolish and empty-headed, but it was also cruel and unnecessary. It took moments for me to say, and the giggles from our little clique echoed in that bathroom, until a toilet flushed and the girl we were talking about emerged from the stall. You could have mopped the floor with me. Her eyes were red and puffy and I knew her heart was broken. My words did that. Mine. The laughs from my silly friends certainly didn’t help, but my words were the weapon that brought this precious girl to tears. Mine. I hurt her. And we all left the bathroom in silence, and to this day I know I’ve never apologized to her, because I don’t even remember at this point which girl she was. But I will never forget her face and I will never forget what I did. And I have spent the rest of my life seeking redemption for that moment- not just that moment, but for the heart that was in me that allowed those words to flow from my mouth and do that kind of damage. Never again, Lauren. Never. Again.
This week our family attended a homeschool conference- not so much a conference as a parent-equipping seminar- that was full of families like ours who homeschool in the way that we do, seeking to know more and be better prepared to serve our children through home education. And while I was soaking up brilliant ideas and wisdom from other parents, my littles participated in play camps with other homeschoolers their age. On the first day, my boys’ class talked about the moon, and my five year old, in all his enthusiasm, couldn’t wait to recite one of his favorite poems- The Moon, by Robert Louis Stevenson- with his class. He’s not a performer by nature- he’s very shy. And he’s a complete perfectionist. He’s my child who can do multiplication tables at five but refuses to write because his handwriting “is just not straight enough.” He’s also my child who, if you read my post about boundaries, you will remember is the one who refused hugs and affection from me because “it makes me uncomfortable.” Well, recently, this same child has been a little hugging machine- he’s been trying new things and hugging me like crazy because he’s found his “thing.” It’s poetry. He loves poetry. He knows the poetry section of our library, and our librarians tell him when new books of poems come in. He lays in his bed at night with A Child’s Garden of Verses, and knows the entirety of William Blake’s The Tyger because those bring him so much joy. So when he came home from the first day and asked to practice The Moon with me until he could say it “just right without stopping,” I was not the least bit surprised, but I was a little anxious for him.
He’s a five year old boy. Who loves poetry. It doesn’t get much more homeschool than that, amirite? And all my fears of mean kids swell to the surface when I see my babies want to venture out into their own uniqueness in front of their peers. What if someone teases them? What if they get discouraged? What if they’re embarrassed? Or laughed at? What if someone’s different view of what they’re doing makes them feel isolated and alone? Or worse…what if it makes him think his love of poetry is wrong and he stops doing something he loves? Ugh. Parenting is so, so hard. I love my son’s love for poetry because it’s my connection to him- it’s a way for him to feel excited about something and to share it with me and hug me and love on me when no other interest ignited that in him. The thought of him hearing that it’s weird or not appropriate for a boy or a kid his age is just enough to send my anxiety over the edge.
But he did it anyway. He practiced and practiced, and when he went to camp the next day, even though the moon day was over, he asked if he could share with the class, and they clapped for him. His sweet little classmates loved it and even if they didn’t, they didn’t make him feel silly for loving it himself. And as I sat in my parent training sessions listening to the wisdom of other mothers, I heard story after story of these little (or not so little) homeschoolers who ventured out to do things (like sing the Preamble to the Constitution in a middle school sports club talent show) that might not have been cool but that weren’t as poorly received as the parents worried they would be. Then one mother shared this bit of wisdom, and it stayed with me, and will act as a guide for me as I continue to educate my children at home.
We have an opportunity to teach our children that there is no shame in being wrong, because being wrong means we have the opportunity to ask questions and learn more.
She talked about how often her children would hesitate before answering questions because they were “afraid to be wrong.” That it’s inherent in us that the only valuable answer is a right one, when the opposite is true. It’s great to be right, and our culture celebrates rightness, but being wrong gives us beauty to grow and mature and learn more. When we’re wrong, we ask questions. When we’re right, we stop learning and, if we’re not careful, we start telling everyone about our rightness.
That’s where the culture of kindness comes in. That’s what these children showed my boy. It wasn’t Moon Day anymore, it was Flower Day. The teacher didn’t give them time for presentations. No other students were asking to share something. But no one enforced those expectations on my boy. They just let him be himself. And I have no idea if he recited it perfectly- but I do know that no one stopped him or corrected him or laughed at him. No one shamed him. And he came home just as happy about his day as he had any other day.
Do you know those people who are always right? You know which ones I mean…the ones who can’t let you make a mistake because it’s their job to steer you in the right direction? I’m not talking about accountability partners, because we all need those, but I’m talking about accountability enforcers. These are the people in our lives who are in possession of some hidden truth that they feel is their responsibility to share with the rest of us, lest our own knowledge lead us down a path of some unknown danger. Surely we must be saved by the rightness of those individuals, because we can’t possibly allowed to continue on in the world without our eyes being opened to whatever inaccuracies we have in our current view. There are a few that come to mind for me, and I know I dread any time those people are going to be around me because I’ll either be humiliated by all the things they identify that I don’t know, or annoyed by how they declare themselves master over every subject and that somehow I’m a lovable imbecile just waiting to be enlightened. Either way, my heart in those situations is not reflecting of the person I am, and I find myself thinking thoughts I’m not particularly pleased with.
Are you one of those people, though? I know that sometimes I am. I can’t help myself. (That’s a lie. Of course I can help myself. I just choose not to help myself.) As I sat meditating over the thoughts of this mother in my conference, and her challenge to us to create an environment where children can be wrong and learn from their mistakes in a loving, encouraging, and uplifting environment, I had to get very real with myself about whether or not I create this, not only in my home, but in the world when I’m participating in it. Do I create that in my day to day interactions? What about in my presence on social media? That last one was painful. Truthfully, all of them were painful. Sometimes, no actually, a lot of times, my behavior proves that I value being right more than I value cultivating a place where people around me can grow. And sometimes, yes still actually a lot of times, the truth is that I need to pause and listen for someone else’s views, with an openness that they may have something to teach me. That they might teach me something regardless of who is right. Because even in being wrong, there is learning.
I am very passionate about not being an intellectual elitist and not being ableist in my own life. I have a great education, and I am grateful for it. But the mom who homeschools her children with a high school education has no less wisdom or ability than I do when it comes to educating her children. I genuinely believe that. I have a child with a severe disability. While I spend my days planning when my other children will read The Aenid, my oldest is watching Dora the Explorer and playing with preschool toys. And parenting her has been the single greatest educational experience in my life. I say all the time to friends who are conflicted about doctors or teachers or other people whose authority they trust but whose judgment about one thing or another goes against their own plans or desires for their children, “You have a brain in your head, and it is no less valuable than that other person’s.”
But when it comes to everyone else…do I really demonstrate that? What about that person driving in front of me who I repeatedly call a moron as we navigate afternoon traffic? What about the cashier who I catch myself disrespecting because she’s carelessly throwing breakable items together into my bag? What about the language I use with myself when I’m disappointed with things like my ability to remember something important, to make a dish that didn’t turn out right, or to lose weight after having five babies? Am I demonstrating grace in the hard moments to say no, there’s room for error here.
I decided to step away from social media again for a bit, and this time it’s to reflect on my own capacity for kindness and wisdom-seeking. Too often I go to social media as a place for information uptake, only to find myself seeking opportunities to share some blip that will put someone with an opposing viewpoint in their place. As if by sharing my opinion wrongs will be righted and truths will be revealed. I heard this week in our sessions that
Students who learn to wait and let others answer, even when they know the answer themselves, learn to put others first, and to listen with patience, kindness, and empathy.
You guys, that’s what I want for my children. I want them to be brilliant and learned and well-read and creative, but I also want them to be humble learners. Truthfully, I also really want that for myself. I am not always a humble learner. Often times I’m a self-righteous learner with a heart for getting more knowledge so I can be even more right. That’s not a great way to model a culture of kindness for our children. Carrying around a megaphone of truth won’t help win anyone over to my side of the fence- it will just teach people that I’m loud and not much of a listener (and honestly not very much fun to be around). And that’s not what I want to be. Those children who listened to my son’s poem probably didn’t care one iota about poetry. And my son didn’t share it because he wanted to convince them to like poetry- he shared it because he liked it, and they listened because they were kind. How funny when we seek to be the teachers, and the students teach us.
If we want to cultivate kindness in our children, we won’t do well to lecture them on what to do and what not to do. I can promise you my parents never taught me to be hateful to that poor girl in the eighth grade bathroom. Our children will have plenty of models of and natural temptations towards negative behaviors. But we can immerse them in an environment where being right isn’t the ultimate goal- where glorification of self isn’t as important as learning from the experience and joy of others. And we can teach them to aspire to create joy and see the value of others regardless of those individuals’ experiences or outputs. But we have to start with ourselves.
That day in the eighth grade bathroom was a pivotal moment for me. I knew after that I couldn’t be a mean girl anymore. I couldn’t live with myself like that. And I genuinely left that attitude behind. Don’t ask my mom what kind of teenager I was, because somehow I decided all my mean girl-isms could still manifest themselves at home (sorry, Ma), but I never brought the mean girl out to other kids at school again. I wasn’t the most popular and I wasn’t the life of the party, but I knew none of those things would matter to me if I left a wake of heartbreak like the one borne by that girl in eighth grade. I share this story often with my children because it’s important to know that our actions have consequences. But it’s even more important to do something with what we’ve learned, and I hope we continue to bear the fruit of that lesson.