This post was originally published here on April 4, 2010.
‘I could date anyone.” That, I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit, is a concrete thought I had around the age of 18. This thought wouldn’t be so bad if what I meant by it was that I was open to dating any type of person. Yes, that’s true, I was always very open-minded about who I dated and if you lined up the loves or almost loves of my life, you’d see nothing but variety. But that is not what I meant. What I meant with that statement was that I could acquiese to please whoever wished to date me. I want to retype that sentence. I want to change it, to make it sound not so bad, and, yet, I won’t let myself because it’s the truth. And here’s the kicker. I was a fairly self-possessed girl. I was confident in plenty of ways. I was capable. I didn’t put myself at risk. I was careful. I wasn’t easily swayed by what was going on around me. And, yet, somehow, when it came to dating, I not only thought I needed to be pleasing, I was convinced that I had the market cornered on pleasing. Oh lawd.
I bring this up today because I think the desire to be pleasing wasn’t limited to just me and wasn’t limited to just girls coming of age circa 1991. But I do think my willignenss to be pleasing could have been incredibly dangerous- and not just a notion- had it not been for the self-possessed, indepedent streak I had. Being careful, controlled, capable kept me safe– and incapable of giving in to the desire I had to be pleasing (if you’ve read Chapter 3 in Hijas, you saw an all too concrete example of the tension between those dichotomies at work and the girl in control won out no worries as she always did, in spite of herself). As I spend more and more time with young women who struggle with being pleasing, I am reminded of that girl that wanted to be pleasing and how she narrowly escaped going down the pleasing bunny hole. And I wonder about how to keep other girls from falling down that slippery slope before she catches on to the fact that no, she should first be expressing her own choices and preferences; she has the right to choose, not just wait to be the chosen.
We need to raise girls who are self-possessed, who don’t believe that they need to be accomodating, who understand that there is a diference between being polite and being pleasing, who fall in love with themselves and with their gifts and talents and who understand that being loved by them is a gift they give- not one they owe. And we need to raise boys who don’t feel that they are entitled, who understand that nothing is owed to them, that they should earn what they receive in life– that they earn rather than take, and who do not want to just be pleased. I think of this as I raise a sweet little boy who is learning to be gentle, to be sweet, to share, to clean up his messes. These little moments are just moments in our day but they are more than that, too, I hope– they are the roots of who he is to become. I try to remember each day that as we raise him, we impact his world and the world. That helps me to make the better choice and not just the easy choice (sometimes, most times, let’s hope).
I was walking with a friend the other day and she was lamenting her seven year old’s fire. “She needs that fire. That’s what is going to keep her safe,” I told her. “I know it drives you crazy. But, ultimately, you want her to resist pleasing other people just because. That might mean that she is resistant to pleasing you just because and you have to rethink how you present things to her to appeal to her rational mind as to why something’s important, but keeping it in place will serve her well later.”
Because I have spent the last 18 years working with young people, I’ve developed a few rules about how to keep their spirit alive (or bring it alive in the world) while doing the work I need to do to help them grow, keep them safe, etc. Here are three quick thoughts I have on the subject.
1. Know why you are saying no. If I feel like I need to say no to something, I always ask myself why. Am I saying No because of a desire to be in control or am I saying No because of a desire to keep someone safe. If the anwser is yes to the first part (control), I get a grip on myself. If the answer is no because of the second part (safety), I explain where I am coming from. When I was traveling out of town with my students as a high school teacher, they would often observe that I was more strict with them than their parents. I could have let a comment like that hurt my feelings or gotten defensive, but I didn’t– because I knew I was more strict than their parents and I explained to them that they were someone else’s child, heck, someone else’s life, and they were on my watch and that I took that responsibility, that trust their parents had in me, very seriously. “Heck,” I used to say, “if you were my kid, I’d let you play in the street. Since you are someone else’s, I don’t even want you looking at the street.” Because I was upfront with them, my kids were willing to get it. They respected the position I was in and so they didn’t push back when what I needed from them on those trips was different from what they wanted. Moreover, they could see how adults reason and begin to understand that we have parameters for well-intentioned reasons and not just knee-jerk reactions (if that’s true; again, see the control vs. safety question).
2. Be an askable adult. You want the young people in your life to be able to come to you and ask the uncomfortable question. Trust me, even if it makes you uncomfortable, it beats the alternative of them not asking and learning or taking their cue from someone else. Be approachable. Don’t freak out. And if you need time to catch your breath after what you have been asked, buy it by asking, “why do you ask?”
3. Encourage their interests. Get them talking about what they think and why. Help them define how they see the world so that they are less willing to acquiese to the way that someone else sees the world ‘just because.’
Those are just a few ways to help kids develop into independent-minded, thoughtful people. There are more. What have you found to work along the way? How did you get away from being pleasing if you ever fought that battle?