Here's a thought:
It is not our job to make our kids likable by conforming to others' expectations but to help them blossom within their own uniqueness.
Think about that.
Do you realize how liberating that is -- how much guilt it removes when you're able to do what your gut is saying is right for your child instead of what you know someone else is judging you for doing or not doing?
I remember when my oldest was a toddler. I wasn't that far removed from being a kid myself, and so many of my decisions about how to raise my children were a constant vacillation between what my instinct was telling me was right and caving in under the weight of well-meaning advice and unspoken judgment of others who believed me to be in varying circumstances too harsh or too permissive, indulgent or strict, or too controlling or lazy in my parenting. I didn't know it then, but my daughter is what is now called Twice Exceptional (and, no, that does not mean my kid is twice as wonderful as yours). A child who is Twice Exceptional qualifies for special education under at least two distinct and different diagnoses, with one of those exceptions being a gifted IQ (130 or above in most places) and the rest being some cocktail of learning disabilities.
Raising a Twice Exceptional child (or more than one) is usually a daily adventure into the unknown, especially when a child is young -- because the exceptionalities are rarely identified that early, leaving parents a bit off kilter as they struggle to understand their child's unique approach to life. All three of my children were on high speed from the time they awoke until they fell asleep -- and they spent far less time asleep than did the children of my peers. They were intense, driven learners -- and this usually meant that they wanted to do things that were far beyond their development level, which, in turn led to high frustration and meltdowns. I can say from first-hand experience that there is nothing quite like a toddler's meltdown in a museum (or zoo, store, or library) to entice complete strangers to negatively judge your parenting skills.
It wasn't until I finally hit the wall with an exceptionally bad experience that I finally found my real footing as a mother.
I remember the day well.
My youngest -- also Twice Exceptional -- was in second grade and just newly accepted into special ed with a long list of learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorder -- although it would take three more IQ tests over four years to finally get him qualified for gifted as well. My son's teacher that year leaned more towards the highly organized, rigid style of teaching, and it was a terrible match for my kiddo who failed miserably at helping her meet her self-defined goal of curing my kid of his "bad habits." She spent many a day yelling at my son for his forgetfulness and messiness and sent angry emails home every Friday to report another failing grade in spelling. I was still a bit insecure, trying desperately to find ways to help my son learn to memorize his words and feeling guilty as a mother that I'd failed to find a solution that would work.
But in our last parent teacher conference of the year, with my little 8-year-old sitting beside me, the teacher began ticking off one complaint after another. She pointed out every one of his failings with great emotion. And as she detailed each failing on her list, my son sat quietly by my side, swinging his legs and rolling his little dinosaur over and over between his fingers. He did stop and listen as she reported his state test scores but never spoke a word.
When she finally ran out of breath and stopped, I looked at her and quietly asked, "This is all of your feedback?"
"Yes," she said, still visibly upset.
"Nothing good to say about my son?"
She looked surprised for a moment and then, with a tight jaw, said that no, there wasn't.
"Not one good thing?" I pushed her again to reconsider.
"No," she said. "You son is difficult. He doesn't do his work like the other students. And he says things in class that challenge my authority. He questions what I say -- right in front of the other kids. He argues with the facts I share in science. And he is the student. He should be learning from me. Your son is a problem."
I ignored her and turned directly to face my son. I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head until his eyes met mine. I said, "Do not listen to her. You are not a problem. You are wonderful and unique, and you will one day do amazing things because of your special gifts. Do not listen to her."
We walked out of the meeting, and my legs were shaking so much I wasn't sure I was going to make it to the car before I broke down. I buckled my son into the back seat, climbed in our minivan and prepared myself for what I believed would likely be one of the most painful conversations I would have to endure -- helping heal the wounds inflicted by his teacher's words. I gently asked, "How do you feel about what your teacher said in there?"
"I was excited!" he replied, much to my surprise. With a bit more prodding, he explained. "Did you hear what she said? I was at grade level in reading. Finally!"
It was in that moment that I realized my responsibility to my son. It would be my job to make sure that he learned the lessons life required of him, but that those lessons happened so that my son could embrace his own unique gifts to decide for himself what his contribution to this world might be.
My son is a teenager now. He's already done some amazing things with his young life. He's launched his first business. He helped his friend as she organized the first Teen Startup Weekend by teens for teens... the first in the world. He's designed a plethora of mini games in Minecraft that his friends want to buy, and he's created several of his own musical compositions. And yet his teachers, for the most part, continue to focus on the problems -- his inability to conform to their specific process of turning in papers or his input in class which feels disrespectful or disruptive. One of his teachers recently sent an email asking about my son's grip on reality -- because the teacher just assumed that a child who still can't spell a word the same way twice in one sentence -- much less the correct way ever -- could never have the ability to launch a business at the age of 13 and must be bragging about things that didn't really exist.
While I am all for teaching our children to respect authority, learn discipline and responsibility, I have also come to understand that it is so not my job to make my kid feel defective because he doesn't fit in the right box. There are a long list of leaders across multiple industries who all rose to those heights in their careers by not fitting in a box, by not being the "easy kid in class." While I won't tolerate bad morals or bad behavior, I am completely over apologizing to anyone for my kid not being some bland version of himself so that he's easier to manage.
When I stopped worrying whether someone else was comfortable around my kid or liked them, I discovered something pretty magical. I discovered I genuinely like my kid. Just as he is. So I'm pretty sure that I'm the one who's ended up on the lucky end of parenting.
Previously published on Mama CEO