My daughters are as opposite as they come. Our oldest, Avery, loves pink, princesses, and Barbies; our youngest, Alice, loves superheroes and Mario characters. Their self-expression extends to their lunch boxes: a bunny wearing a pink floral headband for one, and a collage of (terrifying-looking) Fortnite characters for the other. Or at least, it did.
Last year, in preschool, Alice happily toted that Fortnite lunchbox to school, as I patted myself on the back and told myself it was self-expression at its finest. But four weeks after starting kindergarten, she asked me to get her a new lunchbox, explaining a classmate told her it was a "boy" lunchbox. My heart broke a little, concluding that we were beyond the days of her being her full self, and we were entering the years where she feels obligated to change herself to fit in.
I immediately hustled to “fix” the situation, letting her pick out a new lunchbox on Amazon. But when my husband found out, he asked, “Why would you do that? You’re confirming what she was told!” The mom-guilt marched in, and I wondered if my response only made things worse.
As all this happened, I was listening to Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness. One afternoon while prepping tacos and listening to Audible at 1.2x speed, the book stopped me dead in my tracks, with the lines: “Belonging so fully to yourself that you're willing to stand alone is a wilderness…The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can't control it, or what people think about our choice.”
“Sh*t,” I thought, “Alice is already in the wilderness at age 6.” Maybe, I reasoned, I could pull her out of the thick pines and rugged landscape before it was too late. The new lunchbox was on its way, but what sort of conversation did I need to have with her to stop her from changing herself? In retrospect, caving and ordering a new lunchbox was almost certainly not the response to the wilderness Brown was encouraging, nor was she recommending that I take over the entire situation. But in my defense, I was in a bit of a panic at the fact my kindergartener was already facing this particular struggle of life as a woman.
Wondering if there was any way to repair my questionable response, and what to do next time, I called licensed psychotherapist, Sarah Greenberg, the executive director of behavior change and expertise at Understood, who gave me a bit of a reality check.
She countered my immediate knee-jerk reaction of “holy sh*t, this was the end of my daughter being herself without fear.” She offered up another perspective: Parents have a tendency to view their child’s life through a lens of their own past traumas and hurts, without recognizing that their child may have a completely different take. “There’s another way to look at it from the child’s perspective, which is this sort of beautiful aspect of how we are really social mammals. And there’s that incredible deep need for belonging and connection,” she said.
When I looked back at how I was telling my child’s story, I realized my reaction was less about her, and more about me. I grew up in a family where self-expression was not safe. My lunch boxes were hand-me-downs, and definitely not the “cool” kind. My reaction came from a desire to protect my child, but the story I was telling was about me, not her. She had been hesitant to share why she wanted a new lunchbox, and her eyes shifted down when she uttered the words, “boy lunchbox.” My reaction was less about the story she told me, and more about the shame she carried in her body language. I remembered trying to hide my own lunchbox as a child, so jealous of the kids who had brand new lunchboxes.
Greenberg gave me some great advice for how to handle similar situations in the future, but first, she noted, I need to have some self-compassion (i.e. give myself some grace) and time for self-reflection (i.e. think about why I reacted that way). In the future, Greenberg said, I should use a mix of open-ended questions and context statements to move through a conversation. An open-ended question might look like, “Your friend told you it’s a boy lunch box. What do you think about that?” Or a context statement, said without judgment, could be something along the lines of, “That’s so interesting. You were really excited about your lunch box last week. What do you think shifted?”
In other words, it’s natural to want to protect our kids, but it’s also our job to support them in their journey to figuring out who they are, and to stand up for themselves. “Kids often need our perspectives and sharing of information that may contrast what they hear on the playground,” she said. “The key is also giving them room to question for themselves.”
When I jumped onto Amazon to order a new lunchbox, I steamrolled over Alice. But with open-ended questions and context statements, I could have put the ball in her court, let her think through the situation, and recognize her power.
It felt so important to me to catch Alice at the beginning, before she spent her entire life trying to fit in. She was standing in the wilderness, and I couldn’t control what kids would say about her lunchbox. I couldn’t come to school each day to protect her, and it seemed like such a big, hairy journey to send a 6-year-old on alone. In that initial, panicked moment, it seemed like all I could do was immediately replace the lunchbox that had kicked off the entire incident.
What I really needed, in that moment, was to know if I was doing enough as a mother to protect my kid from all the hurtful things that will happen in life. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t always protect her from losing herself to this world. Even if I do all the right things, I can’t guarantee she won’t experience the same traumas I did. Yet Greenberg reminded me that I can raise my kid to be resilient, to question norms, and to explore what she thinks and feels with curiosity instead of judgment. I can teach her that yes, you can lose everything in the world but one thing. And that one thing is who you are.
Fast forward to now: Alice happily carries her shiny rainbow lunchbox to school each day. This morning, though, she was having a tough time picking out an outfit. Her skirt wasn’t pink enough and her shirt selection was limited as she no longer wears her superhero shirts. “Why do you think you aren’t wearing superhero shirts anymore?” I asked. “Because superheroes are for boys,” she said with a frown. I thought about logging into Amazon to order more pink clothes. But I caught myself, and asked, “Do you really think that’s true? That superheroes are for boys only?” Instead of answering right away, her eyes shifted to the side for a split second, as she considered the question. Briefly, I saw the wheels in her brain turn. “Yeah,” she said, “they are a boy thing.”
She didn’t see it, but I did: With an open ended question, I was able to plant a seed of doubt in her brain. That maybe anyone could like superheroes, and maybe the messaging she was receiving in the cafeteria was incorrect. She might not ever go back to her Fortnite lunchbox or her superhero shirts. Maybe she’s grown out of the phase. But I’m hopeful that with enough space, non-judgement, and curiosity, she’ll let her true self shine through. I now realize it’s not my job to stage a helicopter rescue from the wilderness. But I can sit there with her.
Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.