I have arrived at a place in my life where I don’t mind being wrong. I don’t love it. Being wrong means I have work to do. It means I messed up. I have more to learn. I need to confront things that may make me feel uncomfortable. Being right is easier, but I don’t expect to be and I certainly don’t fight for the sake of fighting just to feel like am I right about something.
My 8-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has little to none of this enlightenment. I would be shocked if she did; right now she is a small, but stubborn, package of defensiveness when she knows she’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean I won’t push her to flex her courage muscles when she messes up.
It is tricky for perfectionists and rule-followers like my daughter to be okay with what they perceive as failure or being in trouble. While I can appreciate both, I can see—I can feel—my daughter’s self-worth wrapped up in doing the right thing. She is not only motivated by being told she is doing a good job, but becomes paralyzed when she thinks she is not. From not understanding math worksheets to missteps with friends, when my daughter doesn’t understand something or knows she hurt someone, she turns on herself first. She doesn’t think she is smart enough. She doesn’t think anyone likes her.
I quickly remind her that those things are not true. I won’t let her play the victim. And that’s when she becomes defensive. That’s when she fights to be right, even when she knows she’s wrong.
She was recently playing with a friend, but when the opportunity presented itself, my daughter left to play with another friend in the neighborhood without telling the first friend she was leaving. Once I realized she wasn’t coming back from our neighbor’s to include both friends in whatever activity she had in mind, I walked down to talk to my daughter. She was pissed when she saw me. She wasn’t about to have any of what I was going to say.
I asked her if she had checked in with her other friend before just leaving. She hadn’t; she didn’t think it was a big deal. I told her it was important to be sure her other friend was okay and that she should include both of her friends.
This is when my daughter got really pissed. She immediately started crying and told me it was fine. She really wanted to play with this friend. ALONE. She was done playing with her other friend, and her other friend would be fine. When I suggested she check on her to be sure, my kid told me I was being mean for not letting her play with the friend she wanted to play with. That is when I gave her choices. I told her she could go home and resume playing with her other friend and play with the new one later; she could go home and ask her friend if she wanted to play with her and her other friend; or she could go to home and go to her room because she was being very rude.
After storming off and telling me I never let her do what she wants and refusing to acknowledge that she had probably hurt her friend’s feelings by ditching her without a word, she went to her room. I knew that she would. I didn’t want to give her the choice of avoiding conflict and what she considered confrontation, but she wasn’t in the right mindset to talk. I apologized to the friend that my daughter couldn’t play at the moment, but she was welcome to come to the house to play with the other kids who were constantly in and out of our yard. She liked that idea and took my offer. So while my daughter was upstairs in her room throwing a tantrum, both of her friends were playing in the yard.
I wondered if I made a mistake. Did I make too big a deal out of her actions? Did I interfere or helicopter-parent my way into making this a bigger mess than it needed to be?
Then I thought of the time my daughter came home crying because a friend had done the same thing to her. She had been the one left behind, and it hadn’t felt good. She was really sad, and I needed her to understand that connection. I wanted her to think beyond herself.
When I went to my daughter’s room she launched into how wrong I was. When I tried to explain how it must have made her friend feel when she just left, she cried harder. She didn’t mean to hurt anyone; she just really wanted to play with the other friend. I said she should have checked in first, and she probably could still play with her friend, but it might mean that her first friend would be joining them.
“I am only 8! How was I supposed to know to do this?! Everyone hates me!”
I assured her that no one hated her and that it was my job to help her learn how to communicate and be a good friend.
“I don’t want to know how to communicate!”
I let her know I was going to show her how to work through these moments when many people’s feelings are involved, including her own.
“But I am scared, Mama!”
There it was. Feelings are scary. Emotions are hard. But I have lots of experience on my side to know that avoiding tough and scary stuff is not the solution. She will have plenty of her own experiences to learn this too without my help, but this was one of those moments where I knew I needed to push her comfort level. I refuse to raise a kid who doesn’t have the courage to admit when they messed up. Sure, this is a lofty goal, but I couldn’t avoid this teachable moment.
“It’s okay to be scared. You are allowed to feel whatever you need to feel. But it’s also important to think about other people’s feelings too. So let’s just go down and check in on your friends.”
I could tell she wanted to do the right thing; she is a rule follower after all. I also knew her defensiveness and need to be right came from having to admit that she made someone feel crappy, and I know she would never do that on purpose. But she just didn’t have the skills to accept the possibility that she made someone sad while being able to believe the friend would still like her. She didn’t have the confidence to admit she was wrong while understanding that being wrong doesn’t mean breaking the rules. It just means we have more to learn.
I took her hand and we went downstairs. She sat on the couch and told me she couldn’t breathe very well. I explained that she was nervous and that was okay. I told her I would do the talking but she needed to come outside with me to make a plan with her buddies. I asked if I could show her how to do this. The right thing to do was to undo the wrong. When she stopped crying, we went outside.
My daughter held onto my hand while I spoke. I kept it simple and asked the first friend if she was okay. Did she want to join my daughter and the other friend? Did the other friend want to stay and do that? If not, that’s okay. Playing at another time was always an option too. As I spoke, I could feel my daughter’s body tense. I knew she wanted the perfect results with minimal work on her end, because when you are a kid you don’t understand emotional labors, but you can still feel it.
After confirmation that all was okay and that her friends were happy, she was ready to play with them, my daughter relaxed. Before she returned to play, I hugged her and told her I was proud of her. I recognized that talking can be scary, but we got through it. This will happen many times throughout her life, and while I can be present, I want to be able to coach her through it.
If you want to be good at something, you need to practice, and I was showing my daughter that practicing vulnerability was the right thing to do.
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