Yesterday, my seven-year-old (1st-grade) daughter was clearly in a bad place when she came home from school. She was cranky, quick to cry, and complained that her stomach hurt. I know my kid, and I know when she’s upset about something. I asked her if anything had happened at school, or if someone had done something to upset her. She shook her head no. I let it be.
As the afternoon progressed, she complained of stomach cramps from being so hungry, so I gave her a couple of options for a snack. She refused both. Her behavior deteriorated further, and I knew something was up. Later at dinner, after bursting into tears over what she perceived as a slight, she finally opened up. The good thing about our darling is she can’t really bear to keep her pain in too long.
As it happens, she had been a little late for lunch (due to a potty break), and she ended up lined up with the 2nd-graders, who, from her young perspective, were intimidating. Two of these bigger kids cut in front of her. She said nothing to them, and she reasoned that she would still get to the counter and get her lunch anyway. And this is perfectly correct.
So I asked her why she was upset. If she was at peace with allowing the two kids to cut in front of her, then why had it weighed so heavily on her heart? “It was just that I thought…” She couldn’t finish, so I added, “You thought that mommies would be disappointed that you didn’t stand up for yourself?” She nodded.
What followed was a discussion of some of the choices she had in that moment, and I pointed out that none of her choices were wrong. One family member noted that hitting them would have been wrong, but as it happens, our daughter knew perfectly well what the consequence of hitting them would have been (being sent to the principal’s office). So, from her perspective she could, 1) stand up for herself and make her mommies proud, or 2) say nothing, get her lunch anyway, and avoid conflict. Neither of these is a bad choice.
I was struck with the peaceful knowledge of her choice, that she would get her lunch anyway, so why worry? But I also get that she is being raised by not one, but two very strong women who have always encouraged her to stand up for herself and her needs. Apparently, we put more pressure on her than we realized, because she was upset all afternoon at the thought of letting us down somehow.
We reassured her that we were proud of her and her decision, and that of course it may not always feel safe to stand up for yourself. You just do what you have to do, or at least pretend to. As Robert Downey, Jr. has famously said, “Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the fuck you were gonna do anyway.” That, too, is a method of standing up for yourself.
Primarily, though, what struck me about her choice is that it seems to me exactly the sort of choice that Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, or Mahatma Gandhi might have made. They would have turned the other cheek. If real harm had been done, they may have spoken gentle words, but they would not have reciprocated in kind. My kid just…let it go.
…Until she couldn’t. Her worries about our judgment are what upset her all afternoon. So yes, we have some work to do to let her know that standing up for herself means being at peace with her choices, even if they aren’t the same choices that mommies would make. Of course, as much as I like to joke about being Wonder Woman, the truth is that I’m very proud of my daughter’s choice, and I think that Diana Prince would also turn the other cheek. Gentleness is strength. Wisdom is peace. I wonder what my daughter will teach me next.