I’ve been reading Raising Happiness by Christine Carter. Chapter 3 (“Step 3: Expect Effort and Enjoyment, not Perfection”) is about increasing our children’s happiness (and potential for happiness) by helping them avoid perfectionism. One way to do this, Carter asserts, is to help them see that failure isn’t the end of the world. This means not helping them avoid situations that challenge them as well as pointing out and celebrating the times that they fail and pointing out how a failure helps us improve. This also means modeling this behavior and pointing out when we make mistakes.
This is an interesting one for me. In general, rather than using failures as a way to help me learn, I generally use them as further evidence that I suck. Not healthy, I know, but that’s where I go. As part of my happiness project, I’ve been trying to be aware of my emotions and to embrace imperfection. Risk Looking Silly, If it’s Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Poorly, and all that. But being convinced of the value of an activity doesn’t make it so I can automatically shift into that mode.
We walked from our house to lunch and the library with a friend and her two kids today. Before we left, I experienced a challenge to my resolutions first when I found that my husband had put the stroller way behind his broken bicycle and a broken piece of furniture in the garage then when I had to pump up the tires on my daughter’s Skuut walking bike (I love that bike, but I hate pumping up the tires). With both situations, I remembered to bring awareness to my emotions and breathe. This prevented a great deal of tantruming and swearing, I’m sure.
I even maintained my Zen-like calm the entire halting, complaint-intensive walk.
When we got to the restaurant, things started getting hairy. It took a surprisingly long time to be seated. As we sat down, I asked for a high chair. While waiting for the high chair, I tried to look at the menu with an eye for my children’s personal preferences while wrestling with my son to keep him on my lap and keep him from pulling everything that was on the table off of it.
“Mommy, I want noodles,” my daughter asked. “Do they have noodles? And cheese? I want noodles and cheese.”
“No, honey. This is a Thai restaurant. There’s no cheese here,” I replied, taking the fork from my son’s hand and moving it to the middle of the table. “Remember, we came here with Daddy one night. They’ve got noodles and rice and vegetables, but no cheese.”
The waitress arrived, pen poised over her green-and-white order pad.
“Are you ready to order or do you need more time?”
I hoped I didn’t look as dumbfounded as I felt.
“I think we’re going to need more time,” I said as my son frantically signed “chicken” from my lap. The waitress moved along to another table.
“I don’t want rice,” my daughter said, as I wrestled the lunch menu from my second-born. “I want noodles.”
Finally, the high chair arrived.
“OK, I’ll see what I can find for you,” I said to my daughter as I put my son in the high chair and discovered that it wouldn’t buckle. I thought, This might be OK. We’ll see how this goes. Before I’d even completed the thought, he’d stood up in the high chair and tried to climb onto the table. I put my squirming son back onto my lap.
We learned that my friend’s daughter was getting plain steamed noodles, no sauce, with chicken and steamed veggies on the side.
“Do you want the same thing?” I asked my daughter.
“I don’t want chicken,” she said, “but I want noodles.”
“Would you like tofu?” I asked as I took the water glass from my son’s reach. They’d only brought us three waters for six diners, but somehow, one always seemed to be within my son’s reach.
“Tofu! Tofu! Tofu!” she replied.
I spotted another staff member and asked her for a replacement high chair.
In a moment of relative calm, I perused the menu, hoping to find something for myself. The staff person who’d taken the high chair returned with it.
“I’m sorry, this is all we have,” she said. “But I’ll tell the manager about the situation.”
“OK, thank you,” I said. I put my son back into the high chair and tied the ends of the waist strap in two knots. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to untie him, but at least he seemed secure for the moment.
In his new spot, my son had access to all of the things I had moved out of his reach while he was on my lap. He tossed a fork on the floor, followed by a water bottle we’d brought for the walk. While I was on the floor picking up the bottle and other items, my daughter resumed her requests about lunch.
“Mommy! I don’t want rice, I want noodles! I want noodles, Mommy! I want noodles!”
I looked at her over the edge of the table and said sternly (and loudly), “If you whine again, we are packing up, and we are going home without any lunch! I told you, I’ll see what I can do!”
Predictably, my daughter started to cry. I noticed a woman sitting next to her baby (who was in a working high chair) turn and look at us. A frisson of embarrassment tickled through my chest, which made me even angrier. I pushed my son’s high chair up to the table and sat down again in my spot. I took a deep breath and looked at the menu again.
The waitress arrived and asked if we were ready to order. I ordered the plain noodles and tofu for my daughter (which would be rice and tofu smothered in sauce when it arrived) and for myself I picked something off of the cheap lunch menu, the first non-spicy thing on the list so I could share with my son. In the quiet that followed, I caught my daughter’s eye.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you, honey.” I wanted to add something about how she shouldn’t have been whining or how I was frustrated, but I knew that a simple “sorry” was more sincere than couching the apology in excuses.
“Why did you yell?” she asked.
“Well, I was overwhelmed by all the stuff that was going on. But I shouldn’t have yelled, and I’ll try to do better in the future.”
“My mommy yells all the time, and she needs to stop,” my friend’s daughter piped up. I smiled.
“Yes, I yell a lot, too, and I need to stop,” I said.
If I were adept at this self-compassion, imperfectionist thing, I would look at this and say, “Oh, good! A failure! Well, this was a big challenge of my resolutions and mindfulness, what with the chaos and the judgment of strangers and the grabbing of sharp objects from the baby. I didn’t quite make it this time, but I lasted a long time before losing it. I’ll do better next time.”
Instead, I keep thinking, “Damnit. So much for using a loving tone of voice with my kids, even when I’m irritated. Yelling at my kid in a restaurant, making her cry, strangers staring at us. What’s wrong with me?”
There was a New York Times piece this week about self-compassion. My inner critic perked up like crazy on this one. She says, “I hate this article, and I think that the suggestions it makes are stupid. Write myself a nice letter? Take compassion breaks? The article says, ‘People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.’ Maybe they’re not happier because they’ve got more self-compassion. Maybe they’re happier and more optimistic and able to have more self-compassion because they’re not screw-ups. I’d want to see a study that controls for screw-upitude before I’m convinced that writing myself a nice letter is worth the effort and embarrassment.”
My inner critic is a real piece of work.
At any rate, despite my negative internal monologue, I really do want to give my children a different and more positive way of looking at their failures. And if I have to change the way I do things to accomplish this, I’m willing to give it a try.
Even if it’s really corny.
But I refuse to write myself a letter.