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June 06, 2007

"Oh, I know that kid..."

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Hills Newspaper Group.

Everyone does it. Everyone talks about other people’s kids. Mostly, it’s good-natured jokes about bad hair cuts and pot bellies and crooked teeth. But, all of us have to admit, sometimes it’s more. “She’s a tough one” or “He’s a wildcard” or “We steer clear of so-and-so.” Some kids trigger our protective instincts and in the company of a like-minded mother, a small objection to a specific behavior can become a broader critique of character.

This will never stop, even between friends. The most honest feedback you can hope for is a factual account of an eye-witnessed event, for instance, “Today after school, I saw your kid smack my kid.” And I know plenty of cases when even this seemingly essential information is withheld.

It’s understandable. Nobody wants to tell a parent that their child has been mean, or rude, or bossy since today’s victim is tomorrow’s bully just as today’s mortal enemy is tomorrow’s best buddy. Anyway, who wants to sound like an uptight tattletale? It’s not just kids who want to seem cool and laidback. And most of the time, it’s hearsay. Are you really going to risk seeming holier-than-thou based on the half-baked report of a seven year-old?

The thing is, if you choose to bite your tongue and give an incomplete report of the playdate—“It was great!” when the truth was “Your kid whacked my kid on the head with a Barbie doll”—then you can’t turn around and tell someone else. If you choose to stay silent, you have to actually stay silent. If you find you just can’t keep it in, the only person you should really talk to is the Barbie Swinger’s mom. Even if you’re afraid of how she’ll react. Even if you’re afraid that she’ll, oh I dunno, write a column about it.

Giving a parent negative feedback about their child is a small act of courage. Just ask my friend Christine, who shared some things about my daughter’s behavior that turned me inside-out for 48 hours (during which she was witness to several of my own “areas needing improvement”).

Why is it so painful to come face to face with our children’s flaws?

In my case, the pain came from two different places. One, it’s unsettling to think that other people can see something that you can’t. Our effectiveness hinges on our ability to see our kids’ clearly. I tried to dismiss Christine’s reports, believe me, but they were quickly corroborated by two other parents, convincing me that I have been asleep at the wheel, a wheel I thought I had been white-knuckling. After all, just like everyone reading this right now, my children are my raison d’etre, my self esteem, my everything.

Which brings me to the second cause of my pain: my big fat ego. While my children happily work their way through Erik Erikson’s developmental stages of autonomy, identity and separation, I cling. I realized this last weekend when my wise friend Susan said, “We are not our children.” Was there ever such a simple and obvious statement with such sweeping implications? Susan went on to say, as I was sharing my theory that my daughter is bossy because I am bossy, “Kelly, we influence them, we do not make them.”

If everything that is said about your child is essentially something said about you--your parenting, your nature--you and your child will be operating at a considerable disadvantage. Attaching your ego to your child--their reputation, their behavior, their happiness--is the exact opposite of lifting them up. It’s putting rocks in their backpack, making everything they do weightier than it needs to be. Beyond that, it’s impossible to see them clearly if they are obscured by a giant mirror showing your reflection.

In my life as a mother, this was a growth spurt. This was the week that I let some blood back into my knuckles, which were white from gripping too tight. This was the week I decided to stop talking about other people’s kids with anyone but their parents. And this is the week I learned to hear feedback and push past all the rotten self-doubt and defensiveness and just see it for what it is: a little gift. Thanks Christine.