Armour built piece by piece
SHE climbs into my bed early one morning, blue eyes duller than usual.
‘‘I don’t want to go to school today,’’ she says quietly.
‘‘ Why darling? You love school.’’
‘‘I don’t want to watch the other kids get awards. I’ve been at school five years now and I’ve never got an award. Five kids get an award every year. Five times five equals 25 and there’s 28 in our class so I should have got one by now.’’
Blimey, my kid should have a Bledisloe-sized trophy for mathematical reasoning alone. I smile at her across the pillow but my heart clenches because, as any parent will attest, their unhappiness is also yours.
Instinctively, I want to make it better. To tell her how fabulous she is and how it’s a bollocksy system anyway that favours the high- achievers and the strugglers, but not the kids in between. I want to tell her that she’s made me laugh harder than anyone on the planet and that her friends adore her and that no kid who can pull off a cockney accent and nominates ‘‘gobsmacked’’ as her favourite word is going to go through life unnoticed.
But it’s not my job to apply Band-Aids to her unhappiness; it’s my job just to acknowledge it.
‘‘You sound really disappointed,’’ I tell her. ‘‘Why does it matter so much?’’
‘‘Because I’d like to stand on the stage with a certificate.’’
I could remind her of all the triumphs in her life. I could also give in to her request to stay home. But on this parenting path where signposts are as thin on the ground as Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, instinct has taught me that this is the good bit. These are the moments for quiet fist pumps. Because watching her dawdle forlornly into school I know she’ll come home with something far more precious than a certificate: resilience.
Child psychologist Dan Kindlon calls it ‘‘psychological immunity’’. Just as our immune systems are strengthened by infection, so our psyche is emboldened by disappointment, failure and struggle. ‘‘ Civilisation is about adapting to less-than- perfect situations,’’ he told The Atlantic, ‘‘yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘ I can fix this’.’’ We’ve developed, he says, a ‘‘discomfort with discomfort’’.
I used to be the CEO of Fix and Rescue. A forgotten lunchbox and I’d drop it to school; failure to make the rep squad and I’d point out the high standard of competition; a lost toy and I’d replace it. But I was doing them no favours. So I dropped my hard hat in the bin and learned to leave them with their hunger, disappointment and loss. It’s amazing how a rumbling stomach can improve memory and resourcefulness; how missing out can make them try harder.
No one would wish on kids a difficult life but suffering can breed the emotional resources they’ll need to cope with inevitable setback and failure. Curiously, all my best friends have overcome significant obstacles: an alcoholic father; a family lie; the death of a sibling; a complicated adoption. It’s made them strong and adaptable, funny and empathetic. The most caring, I find, have often had an absence of care themselves.
Looking at our award-less daughter in the hours after her birth I knew immediately who should be her godmother. This scrawny, underbaked child who spent her first few weeks sleeping her way to a healthier weight needed a survivor on her side.
I asked my closest friend from school, the most invincible and loyal person I’ve ever known. When we were 15 her beloved dad committed suicide. My friend struggled, then rallied. She fleshed out the carcass of her family with friends who are still by her side 30 years later. By making her godmother, I hoped her resilience would wing its way to our second child.
It’s worked. Our daughter is more her godmother than me. She likes cartoon drawings just as my friend liked Asterix. They both have a wry sense of humour: ‘‘Good luck with that,’’ she quips when her dad muses he might take up cycling. And they both bounce back. My girl didn’t freak out when I accidentally deleted her PowerPoint presentation but simply did it again. This week when there was no table provided for her drama exam she improvised with her knees.
Sometimes when driving I snatch glances of her in the rear- view mirror because she’s been blessed with one of those smiles that makes everything all right.
But it was a conversation recently that proved a bit of hardship breeds empathy. We were discussing abortion, as you do when you have a teenager who’s just becoming politically aware. I tried to postpone the conversation until her little sister wasn’t around but her ears were already pricked. As the elder debated the issues — rape, a woman’s choice, when is a foetus a human being — her little sister took it all in.
When she spoke it was with genuine understanding: ‘‘ Whatever the situation, that’s just really hard isn’t it?’’
And there’s no awards for that.
Not every kid can get an award, but missing out can breed the emotional resources they need to cope with setbacks