When my eldest daughter was finishing fifth grade, her school had a promotion ceremony for the children heading to middle school. You can picture the scene: a stage assembled on a lawn, rows of parents in folding chairs, their programs held aloft to shield from the sun. The principal and a handful of teachers gave out various awards. The ceremony was not brief; I began to wilt. Then I perked up.
Citizenship? They’re giving out citizenship awards? To kids who are especially thoughtful, fair, and kind to others?
First, understand this: my daughter is a true, devoted introvert. She has spent years hiding behind my shoulder when the two of us encounter someone we know. The routine is always the same: I’ll start a conversation, and she stands behind me. If I turn, she’ll slide further with a sweet little nod or a murmured “yeah.” She will often smile but her eyes will be drawn down.
During that fifth grade year, she excelled in the classroom while suffering outside the classroom. Girls can be mean, and some turned catty that year. My daughter was more unsettled than she’d been. Needing a new social outlet, she befriended a girl with mild to moderate physical and intellectual disabilities. I was proud when her teacher indicated that my child was “protective” of that new friend, an easy target for bullying. Wow, I thought. That’s cool. That’s the real deal. The news gave me a lump in my throat.
So when kids began trekking to the stage for those citizenship awards, I really wanted my daughter to get one. I thought that would be life-affirming — to have the student with such adult-like priorities be recognized. She was the kid who quietly did the thing that many wouldn’t do, who provided genuine and loyal companionship for a new friend who was outside the social mainstream. Her teacher had noticed this and commented on it. I figured there had to be a chance this would translate into one of those dang awards.
Among the names called were some volunteers’ children, then a set of twins, and — this one got to me — the girl who had been wedging my daughter out of their old friendship circle. And that was it. The list was complete.
My daughter didn’t comment afterward. I should have kept mum. Instead I pointed out to her that she should’ve been recognized because she was an authentic good citizen in the real sense of the word and the rest of those kids were just outgoing. That’s not really “citizenship”, it’s more like friendliness. Right? I went on.
And later I felt kind of small. And silly. And not really citizenship award material myself. But here is my struggle: I want my child to advocate for herself. I want her to get the stuff. I don’t always want her to defer to others. I want her to claim her share of the pie, to assert herself, to make her voice heard amid all the go-getters and the leaders with killer instincts. Where is my kid’s killer instinct? I worry not at all about her character, the overall moral compass that guides her. I worry she will be left behind.
As my daughter comes of age, she appears ready at virtually every turn to step aside for others. Her lexicon includes frequent use of “Oh that’s okay.” She forgives her peers — or is it that she lets them take advantage of her? She’ll shoulder the balance of a group project, assume the best of intentions in others’ behavior, and even chide me if I sound too critical or skeptical of others. She is a lovely human being, but as her mother I worry that she has also grown too comfortable with the shadows. She’s going to be stepped on by others on their way to the top.
Or will she? Perhaps my child realizes something that tends to elude many of us, myself included. In our constant effort to “win”, to get ahead, to prove a point, we may all be shorting ourselves. As noted linguist Deborah Tannen has long discussed, our very culture is built around an adversarial framework. We organize our discussion of many issues around war metaphors, pitting one side against another. Tannen wrote in the late 1990s: “Everywhere we turn, there is evidence that, in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation.”
Years later, Tannen’s work gives me pause. While bluster and digging-in might win the early attention, perhaps it is indeed the soft-spoken, the collaborators, the no-you-firsts who may thrive over the long term. It is not so much that you need fierce backbone for sustained happiness and success, it is that you need to listen. Those who have listened widely have gathered information and honed perspective, and can choose among well-reasoned options.
Sometimes, we teach and guide our children. Other times, our children teach and guide us. Of course I want my child to believe in the value of her contributions and feel confident enough to claim attention and resources. But her collectivist heart deserves to be more common than it is. We don’t always need to literally win; we need to achieve milestones, balance our strengths with the contributions of others, and do the quiet work. There’s no absolute truth in “success”. There’s no reason one can’t build a definition of success that invokes patience, persistence, and tending to the needs that exist in the shadows. Although I as my daughter’s mom might work myself up at times, I’m pretty sure my kid’s alright.
Originally published at medium.com