When I was about six, my mom and dad took me and my little brother to a local pizza place. Usually we went out to dinner on Friday nights--it was our routine--and this was a super exciting trip. Instead of our regular fish house, we were eating pizza!
This was no ordinary pizza place. It had rides for kids and music and was just an incredible atmosphere. Before the days of Chuck E. Cheese, Incredible Pizza Company, and the like, this pizza place was rocking. I was having an amazing time until I went to ride on one of the toy ponies. Another little boy was on it, and when his turn was up, I told him so. He was about my age, and looked me straight in the eye, with a sneer on his face, and said, "Shut up!" Never in my six years had anyone ever spoken that phrase to me. I was a very sensitive kid, and I'm sure I cried. I know I made my way back to the dinner table, head hung low, and told my parents what the little boy said to me.
They looked at me, then turned back to their conversation as though I hadn't said a word.
Now, from the story above, you'd probably think my parents were horribly insensitive. They generally weren't. They were--and are--good people, but tough. My dad grew up on a dairy farm where he worked most of the time when he wasn't in school. Boys didn't cry--they manned up. My mother was an only child of two parents who had experienced difficult childhoods themselves. Her parents ran the town grocery and butcher shop, and by the age of nine my mother was responsible for all the household duties. There was no time for cuddling and nurturing. There were no "I love you's" or listening to kids. Children--at that time, in that world--existed to assist the family's success. Plans for lives were mapped out years in advance. In fact, my mother became a teacher because that was the expectation for her. She lived half of her life trying to please her parents. My father joined the Army before coming home and exploring a few different colleges, to settle on a career in finance. Neither of my parents really understood how to parent a child any differently than they had been parented. And they certainly didn't know how to empower their children.
Empowerment. It's a big word we like to toss around in a lot of psychology and self-help circles. But why is it so important? If you're empowered, you feel like you're able to care for yourself. You can solve your own problems....or at least make reasonable efforts to do so. More importantly, you have a level of self-confidence that allows you to draw healthy boundaries between yourself and other people.
One of the most important things we can do for our children is to empower them to make good choices in their own lives. On Friday, I posted a pretty rough letter about a teacher my daughter is dealing with at school. I think so far, the biggest lesson I've learned in this is how empowered my daughter is. At age eleven, she had created a plan on her own as to how to work with this teacher. Was her plan without flaws? Of course not...she's only eleven and we rarely have plans without flaws, anyway. But when I was eleven, I would have never thought to assert myself or ask for help from school personnel over a school problem.
Empowerment is easier for some children than it is for others. My son, for example, struggles with some emotional and neurological issues that make it more difficult for him to calm down and consider his options rationally. Acting impulsively or selfishly is not the same as being empowered to make positive choices to fix a problem. Despite his struggles, he is beginning to be able to verbalize a need to express himself in a calm, appropriate way. That is empowerment, and is huge reason to be proud.
We do our children a disservice when we don't listen to them, as much as we do a disservice to let every word out of their mouths haunt us. Children need to be given the opportunity to learn what boundaries are and how to appropriately express themselves to work toward mutual goals. When we model this behavior and correct inappropriate responses, we are teaching our kids how to be empowered and how to stand up for their rights.
My daughter is smart enough to know a teacher's job is to answer her questions without belittling or verbally abusing her. She understands that rolling your eyes at somebody--especially somebody outside of your family--is completely unacceptable. And more than anything else, I am extremely proud and humbled by her willingness to stand up for herself and her rights as a human being. That's the nature of being empowered.
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