Nothing traumatic happened to me in my childhood to make me the way I am, when it comes to humility. It is somewhat cloying, for want of better words. It is one of the lesser attractive traits in my character. My parents taught me the usual mantra ‘let the world tell you are good, you just do the right thing’. I try to follow the second part of the dictum, I try to do the right thing. But when the world tries to tell me I am good, I fight it. I posted a picture recently which attracted very generous comments from friends and relatives. Instead of gracefully thanking the kind people, I got into my usual habit of telling them why I look good in that picture – ‘the sun was on my face’, ‘Sean is a good photographer’, ‘the camera is good, makes anyone look good’ etc. The folks who commented on that photo must have thought, ‘Oh dear, what did we get ourselves into?’ My children, however, are completely on the other end of the spectrum when it comes to humility.
I want to write a few incidents that show the humility, or lack thereof, in my children. The first one was when Ryan was five years old. He was in a swimming class, the instructor was lining them up to swim a race. Ryan was waiting next to a little girl, whose dad was taking this 5-year-old swim race a little too seriously. He kept advising his daughter how she should move her arms, kick her feet with all her strength, how she should charge the wall at the end of the race. The girl had tuned the dad out long time ago, but dads don’t pick up on these signs as moms do. There, I said it, now accuse me of stereotyping!! The poor dad was going on and on about focus, determination etc. If I wasn’t getting a kick out of the speech, I would have tuned him out as well. Now, since both my children are crazy competitive, all I say to them before a race is, ‘try your best and have fun’! That particular day, I didn’t even say that. I didn’t need to, Ryan was listening intently to all the dad was saying. Once, when he found a break in the dad’s lecture, this is what he said to the poor man, ‘You know, I am going to beat her!’ First, I couldn’t believe my ears, then I felt a heat emanating from my reddening face. I believe I hissed at Ryan to be quiet and listen to his instructor. The dad was quiet, I was quiet also, debating in my mind whether I should apologize for my son’s nonchalant rudeness. I have felt embarrassment a few times in my life. This incident is somewhere there at the top of the list.
Couple of weeks ago, Ryan hit a triple in a baseball match. He swaggered back to the dugout, took off his helmet and told his teammate sitting next to him, ‘Go out and hit a triple like me!’ This incident was narrated to me by the other boy’s dad. I was at a loss for words, yet again. Finally, after some mental gnashing of the teeth, I managed to say, ‘Yes, we need to work on modesty!’ The dad was a good sport, he said, ‘Well, Ryan certainly backed up his statement, he went out and hit a triple – a second time!’ He hit two triples in a game. That is a big deal to a seven-year old. While walking back home, I congratulated him on his good performance and then broached the subject of humility.
‘Ryan, it is wonderful that you hit a triple but don’t tell others to go and hit a triple like you! You can wish them good luck and say hope you have a good hit!’
He looked up at me and said, ‘Why? If they hit a triple our team will win!’
“Yes, but don’t say LIKE ME!”
“Why? I hit a triple!”
I gave up at that point. His words were not laced with malice, the innocence was precious. I thought I would make some other time a teaching moment, and let him savor his success.
When Sahana was younger, I found her standing in front of the mirror singing ‘I am awesome, I am awesome!’ in different tunes and intonations. I told her I thought she was fantastic, but I would really like to know why did she think she was awesome? She said, ‘Because I am!’
Sahana, a couple of years ago, was talking to a girlfriend, when I called her. She didn’t hear me, I called her again, saying, ‘Sahana, you can’t hear me?’ Her girlfriend turned to me and said, ‘No, she couldn’t hear you because she was talking to ME and I am awesome!’ I was dumbstruck by the comment of this 10 year old. When I got my wits back, I thought in my mind, ‘Poor child, we need a reality check here. I fervently hope the world thinks you are that awesome, or else, you will have to deal with a lot of mental baggage when you grow up!’
I love the fact that my children have a strong sense of self. I am fortunate because some parents have to bolster the sense of self in their children. But I worry that this ‘strong’ sense of self doesn’t become ‘inflated’ sense of self. Sahana and Ryan are confident, young people and I love that. But I also worry that failure at something may crush them. It may sound terrible coming from their mother but I want them to taste failure once in a while. I feel it is important to learn that failure at anything does NOT mean the end of the world. It DOES NOT mean one is worthless. It just means you work harder and do it the next time, or the next. I strongly believe it is important for every individual to know and appreciate their worth. I am working on it. At the same time, it is also important for us to know what we need to aspire towards, to become truly awesome. I wonder if we are teaching our children that lesson? With participation trophies for everybody, everybody is a winner. But in reality, there is only one winner. When they reach adulthood, will they be able to deal with NOT necessarily being that winner? Will they have it in them to pick themselves up and TRY to be that winner? And if they can’t, will they move on to other things and win other battles in life, even if there aren’t medals and trophies waiting for them, only joy and satisfaction?
We need to strike a balance where we tell the children they are fantastic and special. Every single one of them are unique and the grown ups – parents, relatives, educators, counselors, coaches have the responsibility to nurture their uniqueness yet keeping them grounded to reality. We have the responsibility of teaching them that they can work on the qualities that they already have to BECOME their best! They have their whole life ahead of them to learn, practice, experiment, fail, learn again and WORK towards who they want to be in life.