Saturday, December 29, 2012

Manifesto for growing up

It was a few months ago that I first caught her studying herself critically, negatively, in the big hallway mirror.

I look like an armadillo, she said disgustedly, not, I'm pretty sure, because she thinks she looks like an actual armadillo, but because it was the first unpretty creature she could conjure.

Oh. No. Not on my watch will this self-doubt creep in my young girls' lenses. And so we began screaming I AM BEAUTIFUL! into mirrors. I say it for them to model them. I say it to them to indoctrinate them.

There are two truths here:

-They are beautiful. Non-relations tell me so all the time. We don't even need to address my bias.
-It's too easy for girls to hate themselves and I will build a fortress against it with every brick I can reach.

And so I say always, "you are so beautiful. It's important for you to know that." But: kids and their questions. Why is it important to know that? You need to know your value, I say. You need to know your worth. If you know it completely, nobody can devalue you. Nobody can break you down if you have built yourself up strong.

Did you read the book The Help or see the movie? I think of the mantra the nanny put in the little girl's head sometimes:

You is smart. You is pretty. You is important.

and I keep talking to the girls, because I'm convinced that all the misunderstandings and hurts of the world come from too few words. We just need to express our ideas fully and be heard.

So I keep talking.

"You are beautiful, and it's important for you to know that. But you are also very smart, and smart is even more important than beautiful. It is far easier to become pretty than to become smart."

But I think that's not enough, so here is what I've added, and with the third point this list comprises my working manifesto for growing up:

You are beautiful. The more you believe in your beauty the less you can feel the sting of peer pressure, bullying, shaming, criticism, the voices of those who don't know their own worth. You are beautiful. You will walk confidently but not boastfully through this world. [Girl clause:] You will empower fellow girls, believe in the strength of your body, and give and expect respect. [Boy clause:] You will grow to treat boys and girls and then men and women with equal respect.

But smart is more important than beautiful. You will recognize your fortunes to be put on this earth with more than one gift. You will use your brains for good to make this world a better place.

And kind is even more important than smart. If you give and receive kindness, that trumps everything.

I spill these morsels into them whenever the chance arises, because who knows which is the conversation they'll remember or when I might not get another chance to say anything. We speak in front of the mirror, at the dinner table, in the checkout line. And kids who want instructions for everything: how to play this game, whose turn it is to go first, for how many seconds they need to brush their teeth, they're asking all those questions because they really want instructions for life, the whole thing of it. And I always think what needs to be distilled for them to fall back on in moments of uncertainty, what can I say in their ears so many times, that they'll know my voice just like an "I love you" in their ears?

This is what I have right now:

You are beautiful; but smart is more important than beautiful; and kind is even more important than smart. Just do your best to live those things and everything will be okay.

Questions come up more and more as they get bigger, forming in phrases like why does he always pick on other kids? and she says she's fat and wants to go on a diet - is she fat? - what's a diet? - and am I fat? - do I need a diet? and why did she say she's going to tell Santa Claus on me if I don't do what she wants? but those are all really just forms of "why is there meanness in the world, why manipulation, why are people sometimes cruel to each other or themselves?" and this is what I've got as insulation:

because they don't know their worth. They don't know their value so they try to diminish yours. So know your worth. Be the good and not the mean.

You are beautiful; but smart is more important than beautiful; and kind is even more important than smart. Just do your best to live those things and everything will be okay.

These are the conversations we've been having in our house a lot lately but as the year comes to an end and we're all taking stock of our accomplishments and failings they're a good reminder to myself, too, and so I share them with you. What would you add?

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