Every year, I go to parent-teacher conferences. Every year, I look forward to being told that the child in question, whichever one, is a genius, startling in their intellect and destined to go far. Increasingly, every year, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might hear something else instead, because my children are children, just like everyone else’s.
This morning I went along hoping to hear that Mabel has a prodigious vocabulary; that her teachers have noticed her propensity for metaphor, her facility with rhyming words, and her endearing imaginative play. I was slightly terrified that they’d tell me she was a horribly spoilt prima donna who couldn’t take no for an answer and that it was all my fault. (Obviously.)
They told me she needs to be more assertive.
I really wasn’t expecting that. I mean, I don’t know if you can tell from the blog, but Mabel isn’t exactly backward in coming forward, as my mother might say, when she’s at home. She tells us how she feels, loud and proud and repeatedly, often with emphatic gestures (let’s say) to drive home her point.
On the days when I help at school, she tends to act up, getting clingy or defiant sometimes, but I disregard that because I know the children often behave differently when a parent is there – it’s hard for them to have their two worlds clash. But I hadn’t realised just how different Mabel’s school persona is from her home one. At school when I’m not there, she is quiet and reserved, shy and compliant – and sometimes she lets other kids boss her around so much that her teachers have noticed it and want her to stand up for herself.
It feels strange to have to coach Mabel in standing up for herself when I see her do it so effectively every day with her brother. But that’s family, at home, and that’s different. I know she’s shy out in the world; she sometimes takes refuge in bad manners to shock away a stranger who makes an unwelcome friendly comment. She’s five, and five is not old, though it’s old enough to be very aware of who you are and how you’re different from everyone else, just because you’re you. I need to remember that my daughter’s confidence needs bolstering even though – maybe exactly because – she makes me think it doesn’t. I need to remember that it’s not enough for me to think she’s awesome: I have to tell her, early and often, just like the little girl in The Help, that she’s important.
Because she is smart and good and delightful and full of amazing potential and nobody should ever make her think that she is anything less than just as important as everyone else in the room. If I have to put up with a few tantrums in the post office and a few offended strangers while she figures out how to be herself in public, I’ll do that.