Why is Everyone Making Me Feel Bad About Myself?

Those are the exact words my sweet 3 year old daughter said to me this weekend. We were at an event, and she had just experienced three back-to-back bad interactions with other children who told her that she couldn’t play with them. She stood before me, my child whose heart is so big, with tears streaming down her face. My heart broke for her, and of course, I felt angry. Really angry.

The sad reality is that a lot of peers are going to make her feel bad about herself over the years. As a parent who primarily sees the perfect in my child, the fact of impending cruelty is hard to stomach. The behavior she encountered was far from bullying — it was typical child exclusivity. Young children don’t empathize well. They don’t necessarily realize that telling a child that they can’t play will hurt them, even if they understand that if the shoe was on the other foot they would feel bad. I know this. I also know that feelings of being marginalized, left out, and isolated are an everyday reality for far too many kids. Knowing that it could be far worse makes me worry even more.

My daughter is a kind and caring soul. Her favorite games are playing big sister/little sister, mommy/kid, or teacher/student, and she always takes on the reassuring role. She plays out scenarios where she comforts the less powerful in the dyad, tells them that everything will be ok — to not be scared of bad guys, bugs, bad dreams, etc. She’ll be there for them. She’s looking out for them. I take comfort in her games. I hope that she’s modeling the behavior that she observes at home and school. I hope that she is role-playing the adults in her life who she knows are always there for her. Looking out for her. Caring for her.

I know that I’m not alone in worrying. Parents don’t want to raise mean kids, and they certainly don’t want their children subjected to them. But it’s easy to feel helpless. This is poignant to me because, as a working mom, I can’t be with my daughter 24 hours a day. I, and working parents like me, must seek out caretakers that we trust to nurture our children. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we may expect some bumps in the prosocial development sphere when our kids aren’t with us. When it happens on our watch, however, watching the aftermath really hurts.

So this is what I want other parents to do: Tell me if my child is mean to your child.
I don’t want her to “get away” with that kind of behavior. A moment of meanness should be a teaching moment. And if I’m not around to do the teaching, please gently remind her that it’s important to be nice. Also, fair warning: if your child is ill-mannered toward my kid, I will gently return the teaching moment favor.

I also promise the following to my daughter:

  • I promise that I will teach you to practice empathy. You already do this in your imaginative play, and I will continue to tell you how proud I am that you are nurturing to your imaginary friends, little ponies, baby ducks, etc. When times inevitably arise when you seem to forget those lessons, I will encourage you to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
  • I promise to encourage you to reach out to kids who seem to be shy or socially struggling. It can mean the world to a child for someone else to notice them, and to act with kindness. While you certainly have the autonomy to pick your friends, it doesn’t take much time for you to ask a wallflower if they would like a piece of cake at a birthday party. It doesn’t take much for you to invite a shy kid to hide with you when you’re playing hide and seek. And for those kids who are hanging back, unsure of how to interact in the sometimes scary world of child play, a kind word and and an encouraging smile can make all the difference.
  • I promise to teach you how to model kindness. There are days when people will let you down. They will be nasty and surly. They may ignore you, or worse, say hurtful things. Don’t let it get to you. You are a kind person, and someone else’s meanness has nothing to do with you. That’s their burden to bear. If you refuse to let them get to you — if you meet their darkness with your light — then everyone just might end up feeling a little bit brighter.
  • I promise to help you use your backbone. Even though I say you should model kindness, that doesn’t mean that you should let people push you around. You have as much right as anyone to do what you want to do, and if you need help summoning the will to stand up for yourself, I’ll be here for you. Using your backbone is all about courage. There’s a quote I love by Maggie Kuhn— “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.” You have the power to set the rules of your interactions with others — even if it just means walking away. No worries! We can practice screaming self-affirmations in the mirror until your voice tremble goes away.
  • I promise to teach you perspective. When I was a kid and dealing with childhood/pre-teen/teenage drama, my mom would always ask me “Will this matter in 10 years?” Chances are, the answer is nope. It’s hard to understand that, though, when you’re young and lack the perspective of time. As crazy as it sounds, your friends when you’re 12 years old will likely not be your friends when you’re 22. The drama that you’re feeling in 5th grade about your rec league soccer team will be long forgotten by the time you get to college. Trust me — drama now is a distant memory later, if you even remember it at all.
  • I promise to help you realize that other people don’t control you, and you don’t control anyone else. Interactions with kids are often about power and control. The big kids try to control the little kids. The cool girls try to control the wannabes. It’s easy to get caught up in these webs of power. I’m reminded of the viral video that went around of the little girl trying to put on her seatbelt, and she tells her dad, “ You worry about youself!” That should be your mantra. What matters to you is you.
  • I promise that your self-worth has nothing to do with where you live, who your friends are, what you wear, or how well you do anything. Your value is unfathomable. You are the only you that has ever been, or will ever be. Every day, you do good things that impact the world in a way that only you can. No one is capable of negating one iota of your worth.
  • I promise that trusted adults will always be there for you. Your father and I and your awesome grandparent “posse” are behind you 100%. We will help you stand up when your knees wobble. We will help you find your voice when all you think you can do is whisper. We will wipe away your tears. We will celebrate your triumphs. We will cultivate your strengths. And not just us — we will make sure that you have mentors, coaches, and role models — people that we trust, and that you can trust to always look out for you.
  • I promise that I will always love you. You’re going to make mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes. We’re going to butt heads. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye. You’ll want your privacy. You’ll think I’m hopelessly uncool. You’ll slam your bedroom door. I’ll probably embarrass you. I won’t let you have everything you want. I’ll make you do things that mortify you. You’ll probably tell me that I’m “ruining everything!!!!” (insert eye roll). Ain’t no thang. I will always love you.

Let me repeat that…
I will always love you.

That, my dear sweet daughter who has no reason in the universe to feel bad about herself, is a promise.