I recently took my daughter to the gym with me. She’s been exercising in our small home gym with limited equipment and has expressed interest in coming with me to use the weight machines. She asked if she could bring her friend, and I said yes — knowing full well I’d have to fight the urge to remind her that she’s been wanting to do this for a long time and I wanted her to do her own thing, rather than spending the whole time chatting with her friend.
The exact thing I feared would happen did: She stood next to her friend while she tried out the weight machines, instead of using them herself. After about half an hour, my daughter did start to work out by herself, but she’d only go where her friend wanted to go and only used the workout equipment after her friend did.
Instead of getting into the experience and doing what she’s been wanting to do for months, my daughter hung back and followed her friend. I had to keep the fact I thought my daughter would have been better off if she hadn’t asked her friend to myself.
My sweet girl has never been a leader, nor does she want to be. I’ve always been someone who does my own thing without really caring how others view me. I’m fine to go out to eat by myself, introduce myself to a stranger, try a new fashion trend no one else in my area is wearing, or look foolish while trying something new. I struggle with the fact she finds these things so hard and I have to be patient with her.
I’ve watched her shrink when anyone tries to push her to do something she doesn’t want to do over and over again. She doesn’t want to venture out onto a limb or act like a leader.
When she started school, she always wanted to fit in and dress like her friends. If one of them came to school wearing a purple dress, she had to have one. When her bestie decided she hated dresses, so did my daughter. When a lot of the girls in her class decided they wanted to play lacrosse, my daughter joined the team.
What I’ve come to understand is that my daughter needs to watch certain things be done before she does them. She needs to feel safe and comfortable with her decisions, and some of that comes from watching others try them first. She’s more comfortable doing a sport if one of her friends is going to do it with her. Even then, being a captain or the highest scorer is of no interest to her even though she’s totally capable. She hates having her picture taken or being the center of attention. She doesn’t like big birthday parties.
As her mother, I’ve tried to find the sweet spot. I want my daughter to think for herself, make her own choices, and have autonomy. I also know the discomfort she feels when I push her to be louder, to be more independent. She breaks down in tears, she shuts down and won't talk, and instead of doing something — like that day at the gym — she does nothing.
Trying to morph her into someone she isn’t doesn’t work for her, it doesn’t work for me, and it certainly does nothing positive for our relationship. It’s important to me that she has a voice of her own, but I’m not going to teach her how to stand up for herself by trying to turn her into what I picture as a leader. It’s about helping her develop her voice — not forcing her to adopt a voice like mine.
I’ve learned I need to ask her how she feels about something when it comes up. And the thing is, she does know what she likes. She loves spending time with animals and has put in lots of hours volunteering at the animal shelter. We often go to the pet store and she follows lots of farming and animal groups on Facebook, which gives her a sense of calm. She is responsible for her own pets. Why would I push her to take on something that doesn’t soothe her soul when she has all of this?
Last night she came to the gym with me again. When we walked in she did her thing, on her own. Maybe part of that was because it was just the two of us and she didn’t have a friend there. But I also know that if I had said something like, “Why didn’t you use the equipment you wanted to and do your own thing? Why were you following your friend around?” On that first trip, my daughter would never go to the gym again. Parenting isn’t about making your kids into anybody other than themselves; it’s about honoring who they are and teaching them to listen to their gut and make their own decisions.