But some of us are.
I’ll start with my childhood mistakes, at least the highlights that stand out in my mind:
- In the 1st grade, my best friend of the day and I bullied another child, I’ll call him “Timmy.” Timmy was a year or two older than we were, and he was sitting alone on a bench because he was different. No one wanted to be friends with Timmy. He was heavier than most other kids, he wore glasses and he didn’t really fit in. On a dare, or double-dare you might call it, because there were two of us (energy grows with numbers), my friend and I skipped past him and declared, “Timmy, you’re fat.”
- For pretty much all of grade school I watched and sometimes participated in the shaming of a classmate of mine because she was also different. “Sally” wore glasses, looked unkept, came from a tough home and didn’t seem to care about fitting in.
- For most of grade school, I avoided a family of children because they also came from a rough home and were “dirty” and different.
If you knew me, you might be surprised. When grown-ups met me, they thought I was shy, but exceedingly polite and well-behaved. On the outside I was a model child, but I made mistakes. I was so afraid of being different, I participated in the shaming of other children. What most people didn’t know, was that I was a child in turmoil. I had many secrets to hide, and I tried desperately not to let them out. I would do almost anything to be liked and accepted.
- In the 4th grade I laughed when my friend’s suspenders fell in the toilet water.
- In the 6th grade I snuck inside at recess and changed my answers on a test about pH, lying that I had to go to the bathroom.
I also wanted to be perfect.
Why am I confessing all of this now? Because kids make mistakes, and sometimes these kids are the unexpected ones. But there is always a reason, even if it is as “simple” as wanting to fit in. To be a part of the crowd.
I am the mother of two children who have already made mistakes. I think it’s almost harder to be the parent of the child who makes the mistakes, than the child herself, now that I’ve been in both places. But, neither is easy. My early mistakes still linger uncomfortably inside the shadows of my mind.
In the eighth grade I was given a gift. I was bullied, shamelessly, restlessly, well into my high school years. It was, in hind-sight, a multilayered, difficult and beautiful gift. It helped shaped who I am today. When I moved from the center to the periphery of the popular crowd, I began to look at my world from a different perspective, and I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t want to be a mean girl. I didn’t want to follow a crowd of girls that were not only outwardly unkind, but were experimenting with sex, alcohol and other activities that spelled trouble in my mind. So, I took the lonely path of the good girl. I still made mistakes, but not nearly as many as I would have, I am sure, had I followed the crowd.
Yesterday, I was given another uncomfortable gift. My daughter had made a mistake. A big one in some ways, a not so big one in others. There were consequences, there were punishments, and life has already started to move on. But there is a bigger picture to look at with this mistake, as there is with every mistake we are gifted. Unlike me, my daughter lives a pretty charmed childhood. Not perfect, but pretty darn good. Yet, she has had a habit, since early childhood, of making impulse “mistakes” without thinking through what she is doing:
- She gave herself at least 3 haircuts when I wasn’t paying attention before the age of 5.
- She sprayed perfume in her eyes to see how it would feel. I think she was 8.
- She put gum in her hair to see if she could get it out when she was around 7.
Yesterday, she wrote some words in a friend’s memory book that were meant as a joke, but bore the energy of something much different. When I asked her why, she told me she did it because other people were doing it. She didn’t think about the after-effects, she was merely following her own impulse, buoyed by the energy of the crowd. The resulting gift was an opportunity for dialogue.
After my daughter told me what happened, we talked about decisions and choices. We talked about the pause required before we make a questionable choice. We talked about the consequences that can come when you blindly follow instead of pausing and thinking through. We talked about drugs, violence and other unsafe behaviors that follow the energy of the crowd. We talked about being a leader and not a follower. We talked about turning this mistake she had made into an opportunity. Into a gift.
I doubt this will be the last time my daughter makes a mistake (I still make my own), but I hope together we can find the gifts always waiting inside these uncomfortable mistakes and grow them together.