Alex – my beautiful only just 7 year old son. He is caring, compassionate and so beautifully kind hearted. He has an understanding of words and their effects well beyond his years. He makes observations about the world that blow me away and he teaches me something new every day, about life, about myself and about him.
School however, up until now has been a real struggle for him – his teacher this year has been so incredibly patient and understanding and has changed so much of how she had done things before so that his days have more of a routine and there is a structure he can rely on. It has given him the opportunity to prepare for what is coming next, to settle in, and because of her patience, we have seen a huge turn around in his abilities to be flexible more often.
Alex knows he is different and perfectionism has become the side effect of that. He has trouble with new things because he begins, like we all do, not amazing at first shot, and he hates that. Pushing himself outside of his comfort zone began to be something to fight, hard, rather than embrace.
While struggling to learn to read, he would often stop and look up at me with wet eyes, “I can’t do this Mum, I’m just dumb.”
My heart broke, every time.
I know the power that a negative inner voice can have and I want so desperately for his inner voices to be so loudly positive that he has no choice but to keep going because he believes so strongly in the amazing little being that he is.
I would tell him that he was amazing, that his work was great, that his art work looked beautiful even with the colours outside of the lines. I’m his Mama, his biggest fan. I think everything he does is incredible.
It would fall on deaf ears. I believed it, but he didn’t. His frustration was there, and my words did nothing to ease it. He was so hard on himself, with everything.
I see so much of myself in Alex – the almost obsessive need for routine and structure, to know what is coming, the reluctance to step outside of the known. Because I am this way, I have passed on so many amazing opportunities in life. I never took a second language at school. I wanted to, but I was so worried about my pronunciation being wrong – I didn’t want to embarrass myself or find that I couldn’t pick it up. So I didn’t. And I’ll never know if I would have been able to or not. Seems like something that’s not too much of a big deal, but it’s one of a long list of regrets that I have because I was unwilling to step outside of what I knew I could do.
I want so much more than that for Alex.
It was clear this was inherited from me, so I felt like maybe I held the key to getting through to him.
I took a step back (as I so often do when I’m trying to work out how to help Alex when what we’re trying at the time doesn’t seem to be working) and considered what I feel when I’m struggling with something new – what I try, what helps me to hear, what doesn’t and how I’ve got to a point where I’m able to push myself outside of my comfort zone with a little more ease.
When I’m working on something, or in the practice stage of something new and I’m not happy with the initial outcome, the last thing I want to hear is that it looks fine, or that it looks great even, when I feel like I can do better. I can do better with a bit more practice, and I know that – I don’t want to settle for fine. I don’t want to hear that the thing I am frustrated over isn’t a big deal – if I’m working on it, it’s because it’s a big deal to me.
What does help is when someone takes an interest in what I’m working on, listens to what I’m not happy with and sits with me while I work through how I think I could improve and gets excited about whatever it is with me.
I want to be allowed to keep trying without being told that the first attempt was fine. I enjoy the process of working towards something better and I need that to be understood.
Empathy is what my attempts to help him had been missing. I’ve read so much about what a powerful strategy it can be in parenting and I’ve begun putting it into play.
We practice Alex’s sight words daily and we do it together. I praise him for trying and we work together to think of ways to remember the ones that are tricky because they don’t sound out.
When he gives me a reading book and tells me he’s probably going to struggle with it, I don’t ‘auto pilot mum’ and just tell him he’ll be fine. I remind him that I understand how hard and scary new things can be – I feel that way too sometimes, but that we’ll get through it together, one step at a time and that I’m so excited to hear him try.
When he colours outside the lines, or draws a spiderman with lop sided eyes that he isn’t happy with, I don’t tell him it’s perfect the way it is. I ask what parts he’s not happy with and we have a discussion on how he could improve it so that he is happier with the next one.
I remind him regularly that there is no such thing as perfect, but working hard and always doing his best is something to be proud of.
He has changed even in the short time since I had my parenting epiphany. He is ambitious and determined and I love that these are the qualities that he will grow up with. I praise him for wanting to practice more, for his new, more positive attitude towards the new, and for being willing to put in the hard work to get better.
I’ve seen my little ball of wonder begin to transform into a more confident and open little boy, he speaks about his art when he is unhappy with it, rather than getting angry and throwing it out. He happily gives his new sight words a try and getting him to write is no longer a battle.
He now understands a little better that my pride doesn’t come from his artwork or his reading or his writing being perfect, my pride comes from his willingness to try, his hard work, and his commitment to getting better. My pride comes from the amazing, resilient, thoughtful, sweet little monster that he is.
It seems he is no longer obsessed with striving for an unrealistic ‘perfect’ outcome. He is focussed on doing the best he can, working as hard as he can, taking chances on new things and giving them everything he has, and he is remembering to be proud of his progress when we sit down to discuss how far he has come.
We’ve still got a way to go, but I am watching him rediscover the joy of all of the things his inner critic was making difficult for him and I hope that with time, that inner critic will get a little quieter, and the little voices praising his determination and pride in himself and his amazing abilites, a little louder.