The Confidence of Youth

One afternoon, about a year ago, I opened the back door to hear the happy squeals and screams of the neighbor kids playing through our backyard.

"MOM! Can I go play with my neighbor friends? QUICK! Where are my shoes?" my six-year-old son Jackson breathed out in a rush.

"Sure, your shoes are wherever you left them last."

"But, MOM! I can't find them!" he panicked. "Can you help me find my shoes?!?! HURRY! They are waiting for me. MY FRIENDS ARE WAITING FOR ME!"

Now keep in mind, his friends were NOT waiting for him. His friends were NOT expecting him. Heck, for all they knew, Jackson was gone for the afternoon. They were blissfully having fun on their own. Not that they wouldn't welcome him into their little circle of fun when he got there (and, of course, they did), but at the time, they were happy just to be playing – with or without him.

Yet, in his mind, they expected him, they wanted him, they needed him to be part of their group, part of their fun. He was confident – absolutely certain – that he was one of them, that he belonged in their tight little circle, that his presence alone was enough.

We found his shoes in a few minutes and he raced out the door. Well, let me tell you, few things crack your heart wide open like seeing your son skip across the backyard to go play with his friends. Every movement of his body, his very essence, exuded comfortable confidence and simple delight. As a mother, I was absolutely overjoyed to see him so happy and grateful that his neighbor friends are so kind, gentle, and welcoming (especially given that most of them are a few years older than him).

But amidst all those wholesome and understandable mama love emotions, there were also some unexpected emotions lurking: Envy and Awe.

I was envious of his confidence and self-assuredness. And I was in awe of the sureness, the absolute certainty, that he was wanted and needed, that he was accepted and belonged. Because, honestly, I am not nearly as confident as my son is at six years old – and I wish I were. And I am rarely as sure that I am accepted and belong – and I want to be.

While I was always more shy as a child than my son is, I did feel a calm security, an authentic confidence, and a warm embrace of belonging. But somewhere and somehow – most likely in adolescence for all the obvious reasons – that sweet and comfortable confidence of childhood yielded to an acute awareness of my insecurities. Questions and doubts about who I was and where I fit in formed and multiplied, most of which came in the form of comparisons to others. Am I pretty enough? Thin enough? Cool enough? Smart enough? Popular enough? Liked me enough? Loved enough?

But do we ever really stop feeling like that apprehensive and self-conscious teenager, unsure of who we want to be and where we fit in? Do we ever stop questioning whether we belong, whether we are enough? Do we ever stop hiding our insecurities and trying to find a way to fit in with any number of masks and façades?

In college, I relied on parties and booze to fit in and belong, a way to put on the mask of who I wanted to be instead of who I was. In my twenties, I used expensive makeup and fancy clothes to hide my flaws and fears, to put up a façade of confidence and poise. And even now, though the vulnerabilities are different, they still manifest themselves in divisive and unhealthy ways and I still use various masks to hide behind and comparisons to measure whether I am enough – excessive social media, sugar-coated status updates, friends and likes on Facebook, blog statistics, the need to be right, job titles, Instagramed and Photo-shopped pictures.

But I wonder: Is that confident, secure, skipping-to-meet-my-friends six-year-old still in there behind the masks and hidden among the doubts and fears and insecurities?If I listen really closely, and quiet all the external noise, I can almost hear her whispering, "It's okay, you can stop hiding now. You are so totally awesome."

Maybe our challenge as parents is to help our children hold on to that wholesome confidence for as long as possible, to show them often and in many ways just how awesome they are, to create a comfortable circle of belonging for them to cushion the fears and insecurities.

And maybe part of our challenge as adults is find a way to bring out that I-am-enough-and-I-am-worthy confidence of our childhood and balance it with an empathetic acknowledgement and awareness that we are all struggling with our own unique vulnerabilities and insecurities, that we all still feel like an awkward and gangly teenager from time to time, that we all long to feel like we belong despite our inherent differences.

Maybe the challenge – as parents and as adults – is to take our masks off, stop hiding, embrace our vulnerabilities, and hold tight to our children's hands as we run – no,skip – toward all the Awesomeness that is sure to be waiting.

(Then again, maybe you don't occasionally feel like a vulnerable and insecure 15-year-old with acne and frizzy hair. In which case, me neither. It's all cool and calm confidence over here.)

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