Recently, my 9-year-old daughter Risa came home from school in tears because someone said something cruel about her new palate expander. For those who don't know, the expander is an orthodontic appliance that fits in the roof of one's mouth to widen the jaw so the upper and lower teeth will align. For those first few days, it was an archaic monstrosity of metal that created discomfort and constant drool, while making my daughter sound like she was talking with a mouthful of grapes. So I was enraged when Risa, who was struggling to adjust to this contraption, told me that a boy teased her about how she sounded. "I will find that boy," I thought, "and show him what real mouth pain feels like with a simple right hook to the jaw..."). My daughter's sob brought me back from my protective mama-bear fantasy, and I searched helplessly for the answers to soothe her. I cursed myself for not preparing her for with a suitable comeback for this inevitable moment and wracked my brains for a way to comfort her.
And then I remembered a suggestion about creating a circle of self by author and girls advocate Rachel Simmons. It's a project that helps girls discover who they are in their core self; here's how it works: Pull out poster board, glitter, glue, markers and stickers. Then ask your girl to draw a large circle on the poster and divide it into pie pieces, maybe six to eight. Have her write (in pencil at first) a word in each slice that describes her true self. Possible adjectives include "courageous," "funny," "thoughtful," "smart," "athletic," "musical," "kind" and so on.
This was exactly what the moment called for, and I gathered the art supplies with excitement and explained to Risa what we were going to do. "Okay," I said, "let's try it. What can you write in those pie pieces?" She looked at me perplexed. I asked her what words a close friend might use to describe her and she said, "Green eyes, brown hair, tall..." Not going well. I cut her off gently and said, "Yes, that describes your looks but we're talking about who you ARE." I shared a few adjectives for how I would describe her ("kind" and "silly") and she started to get the hang of it. It took her awhile to fill in all the pieces but she did it, and by the time she got to the decorating, she was noticeably calmer -- even joyful. I believe in large part this was because she'd come back to who she is and felt stronger. I also know it was because she loves purple glitter glue.
Once the pie was completed, I told Risa that this circle represents her true self and that no outside event -- no boy saying a rude comment, nothing -- can change that circle. It is solid and secure. She looked skeptical. So I wrote down the boy's comment on a slip of paper and pretended the paper was trying to ram its way through the circle but couldn't do it. "See," I said, making the paper bounce back over and over "it can't get through!" My daughter laughed. Apparently I looked a little crazed during the ramming part. But she got the point: the circle is protected, her true self is intact. We put away the supplies, and got on with the afternoon.
I'd like to say she won't need that circle again, but she will. She'll need it a lot because, unfortunately, catty and petty comments (about zits and breast size and big feet and braces...) are par for the course in any girl's life. While the circle may not be able to shield her from the sting of these remarks, I feel certain that having a solid sense of self will help her rebound faster. So we'll keep that circle of proof nearby.