A while ago one of my sons was having a prolonged moment of not feeling as “popular” as he wished to be. Let’s skip past all of the details about what being popular means, or whether this is a good word to use or think about—the point was that my normally charismatic and social kid was feeling like some friends were pulling away from him a bit and he was becoming grumpy and a little reactive and kind of pissy in response to this.
We went through the usual discussions about who said what, and who did this and that, and how what you put forth in the world will define how people treat you, and how trying too hard sometimes could backfire. We talked and he half listened and he half heard, and then finally I came up with this: I told him I was going to name some people, and I wanted him to say the first three words that came to mind when he thought of each person. I named a few friends and relatives, a teacher, a classmate or two. He came up with words for each of them pretty easily: “funny,” “smart,” “hyper,” “a little show offy,” “nice.” And then I asked him, “When people hear your name, or see you walk into a room, what are the three words you would most like to pop into their minds?”
He thought about it, and hesitated. He came up with some words. The words were positive, along the lines of “funny, cool, interesting,” and all of them were words that, in fact, I could very easily see being used about him. But, I asked him, based on the way he’d been feeling and acting recently, if he thought that those were the three words that would come to people’s minds at this moment. He thought maybe not. I asked him if he thought these three words applied to how he thought about himself these days. He thought maybe not.
We talked a bit about how these words he had chosen could be more apt and accurate, not just in others’ minds, but in how he really felt about and identified himself. I handed him that mirror that we all have to hold up to ourselves now and again. What I liked about that conversation was that even though it was parent-led, to some degree, it was kid-decoded. I didn’t stand there with my pointed finger (a stance that is uncomfortably familiar) telling him what he was doing wrong. He was figuring it out himself, with a few prompts. It was less contentious than it could have been, and—more importantly, and hopefully—more effective.
Anyway, any minute there will be another bump, and I’m sure will find myself yelling at and apologizing to my kids before bedtime tonight, but I was pretty happy with the way that little conversation went. More importantly, so was my son. And if I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of all of us parents, that’s a moment to mark (and maybe even celebrate quietly after the kids go to bed).