They sit on the floor in front of me, building towers of yellow Legos, turning them into lightsabers. One moment later they grab markers and a notebook to create a treasure map that takes them deep into the corners of their closet. They move on to the kitchen, or to play dress-up, or into their fort and their imaginations dreaming up adventures for just the two of them.
I watch them for a little bit, marveling at their creativity, their skills, the fact that they can play together for minutes on end without fighting or dissolving into tears or remembering that only seconds prior they were absolutely starving and “Mommy, pleeeaaaase!”
I grab their notebook which contains drawings of the family, the playground, polka dots of nothingness, their bedroom, traces of their hands. As I flip through the pages, I see that she has written our names. The names of all five of us stare back at me, scrawled in the clumsy, large, topsy-turvy font of a 4-year-old.
When did this happen? When did the baby who grew inside of my belly learn to write letters that form words and color in the lines and be kind to others and jump to the ground from three stairs up?
I’m just kind of baffled and amazed and overcome with love for this little one, and so I tell her: “Hey, kiddo, I’m so proud of you and how strong you are and how brave you are and how you’ve worked so hard to learn your letters.”
Uh-oh, am I supposed to say that?
Doesn’t all of the research say that we’re parenting a generation of kids who are overvalued, overprotected, and sheltered from disappointment and who shouldn’t earn trophies just for showing up? That we need to teach kids the value of hard work and discipline and the significance of the slow accomplishment?
Can I tell my girl that I’m proud of her even when she has done absolutely nothing to deserve it? That I am head-over-heels in love with her simply because of who she is?
And it’s not only that; I don’t stop there. I tell her that she is beautiful and that her body is perfect just the way it is. I tell her that I love the art that she created. I tell her you are important and brave and capable of doing absolutely anything that you want to and don’t you ever forget that.
Sure, sure, we balance this with emphasizing effort, celebrating others, explaining differences, explaining how hard Daddy or I worked on an achievement. We tell her to keep trying, keep practicing, keep working. There are consequences in our family. There are meltdowns. These children of mine are completely average in the best of ways.
And they are only mine for a short amount of time. There are a finite number of years when my voice will be louder than their friends, than magazines, than the rest of the world. So I hold tightly to this sliver of time. I take every opportunity I can to tell them that I think the world of them, that their bodies are perfect exactly the way they are, that they are beautiful and brilliant and creative and strong.
I tell them what I know to be true about them so that they won’t ever question it if the world says otherwise. Because here’s another thing I know to be true: The world will do its best to tell them otherwise. Magazines will tell them they need to be a certain size. Friends will tell them they need to dress a certain way. Boys will tell them they need to act a certain way. There will be so many voices in their life telling them they don’t measure up.
I want them to be so completely, absolutely, unequivocally certain of their worth and their significance and their beauty and their value that they don’t believe those whispers of not-enough for a single second. I want them to be so sure of who they are that they dismiss the meanness of the world and instead are unabashedly confident in their own skin.
See, there’s a difference between making kids believe that they are more special than others versus just letting them know that they are loved.
These years that we have them near are ours to give them an anchor — to champion them, to raise them, to build them up loved and strong, and then to send them out.
And then, when they do exactly what we saw in them all along, we’ll say, See, kiddo, I knew you could do it.