“Toughen up”, “Stop being a baby”, “Try and be brave”, “Is this really something to cry about?” How many times have we said these things to our kids? Usually we mean well, we are even looking out for them most of the time, thinking we always know best and if they just tried a little harder they would see we were right.
But what happens when they are trying their best? What happens when we aren’t right and it doesn’t get better and they continue to struggle.
This happened today. We were at swimming lessons and I was sitting at a table watching each kid try to dive off the side of the pool, into water that is much deeper than they are tall and most of these kids are hardly swimming alone yet… Including one of my sons, yet they have them already trying to dive into the deep end. Now I get why, the instructors are great, and they are right there catching them, and most kids went right up to the edge of the pool and “dove” right in, but then it was my sons turn. He panicked. He is not a confident swimmer and his anxiety got the best of him. He stared down into the water and silent tears came running down his face. He shook his head and said, “I can’t do it” the instructor said a few words (I couldn’t hear what he said) and my son shook his head no again. The instructor looked a little frustrated and then let him jump instead. I hung my head, as a few of the moms looked my direction. One with a smirk on her face. The other two with pity. Their kids all dove right in but mine didn’t. I’ll be honest I was frustrated. I wanted to yell out “be brave! You can do it” but knew the moment had passed.
In my head I was already planning the pep-talk for the ride home. “You gotta toughen up bud, you can do this! You’re strong and brave! You can do it if you would just stop worrying!” Was how I thought I would start. And he could, if he was ready.
But as he got out of the pool he came over to me with a huge smile on his face and said, “Did you see me jump?! And I didn’t even hold on to the side!” And it hit me, I had missed the moment where he over came a fear he had since starting swimming lessons… He jumped. Yes it was a slow and small jump, but he jumped. In his heart and mind he jumped as high as an Olympic Diver. He looked at me with excitement and said, “This was the best swim lesson ever”… And I had missed it. Sure I was there, but in my mind I was festering over him not keeping up with the other kids. I was frustrated by his tears and I was mad at myself for not getting him into lessons sooner. I had single-handedly lined him up next to the other 7 kids in his class and practically put a big red X on him, telling myself he was failing because he wasn’t at the level they were at. Worse off, I had basically planned on telling him so on the car ride home, just in different words. But he would have known what I was getting at. He wasn’t measuring up. He was behind. He needed to do better. I needed better.
If I had not let him have the first words when he walked up, I would have never known this was his best lesson ever. I would have broken his spirit before he even would have had the chance to tell me. Hearing those words come out of his mouth brought tears to my eyes (thank God for sunglasses) because all I could ask myself is why do you need this kid to “toughen up”? What happens then? What becomes of our kids once they are tough? Unaffected? Too prideful to admit their fears? They become us. Adults. My son is 6 years old and in my head I was screaming for him to toughen up… Yet when I really stop and think about it… He is tough. He is the toughest 6-year-old I know. Is he adult-tough? No. Thank God. He is still sensitive, and unbelievably giving and kind. He hasn’t been calloused by life yet and I want to keep him that way for as long as possible. Yet in that moment I lost sight of that. And all because I was so caught up on wanting him to be the same as the other kids.
Now friends, I promise you, these emotions came from a good place. I hate seeing him struggle, and lag behind. I want the best for him and for both of my other children too. But what I was failing to see was that he didn’t view himself as behind. He wasn’t comparing himself to other kids, I was. He was focused on his own goals, and he achieved one of them today. He jumped.
On the drive home I heard his sweet little voice say “Mommy, I know I didn’t dive in today, I was too scared, but I am going to try again tomorrow” and instead of the whole speech I had originally prepared for our ride home, I looked in the rear view mirror and told him I was proud of him. And I was. And not just for jumping. I was proud that he didn’t use those other kids in class as a barometer for his own achievements like I did. He made goals of his own and then slowly but surely checked them off his list. He was braver, and “tougher” than I was. He walks in every day to that class knowing he can’t do things the other kids are doing, but he doesn’t hang his head like I did when those moms stared at me. He held his head high and he jumped.