When I saw this picture on Instagram, my heart just sang with joy. The caption read, “This is the morning Amma popped down the stairs and said: ‘Look! I’m Abby on the top and mommy on the bottom!’” Amma is the youngest child of Glennon Doyle, author of New York Times bestseller Love Warrior and married to two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA Women's World Cup champion Abby Wambach. She was given the freedom to be herself by allowing her to wear whatever she wants. While that might seem too simplistic or even trivial for many, this is a type of empowerment that helps a child grow up to be confident, self-assured and secure.
My soul was celebrating upon seeing this little girl who is allowed to be herself, respected for what she wants and honored for all that she is. Speaking from my own childhood experience, not many children are blessed with this kind of upbringing. Having been raised in a strict Asian culture, the message that was drilled into my head was, “You’re the child, I’m the parent. You don’t have any say on anything. You just obey and do as you’re told.” This includes something as “simple” as dressing up.
Looking back, I can’t remember a time when I was permitted to choose what to wear. I have vivid memories of my mother putting on me what I refer to as “pageant dresses”—adorned with either ribbons, lace or flowers (or all of them), with a puffy skirt worthy of an appearance in Cinderella’s Ball. Those blasted things were so stiff, they could stand on their own. And they were itchy. Very itchy. Whenever she put those clothes on me, I squirmed, screamed and bawled. This angered my mother to no end. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. My childhood memories are rich with disapproving looks and hurtful criticisms.
Seeing children for who they are now, not who they need to become
Ladies and gentlemen, Exhibit A: I embody all the qualities caused by not being accepted for and not being allowed to be who you are by your parents, or in my case, the only one parent I had—my mother (Sorry, mom). They affected the way I navigated myself in this world—anxious and afraid, with low self-esteem, unable to speak my mind, allows everyone to walk all over me and a master in repressing my feelings. And oh, don’t forget the need for validation.
Luckily for me, I was able to work through it and undo all of that damage. But it didn’t have to be that way. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any undoing at all. I don’t live my life with regrets and I know that it was part of my life process, perhaps—I hope—that it is so that others may learn from it; more importantly, so that the children of today will be given the freedom to be who they are and be loved for it.
Clinical Psychologist and International Speaker Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D. wrote the book The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children where she talked about an alternative way of raising kids: the awakened way. She calls this Conscious Parenting.
“Children come to us full of the what is, not what isn’t,” she stated. “When we see our own reality for all it isn’t, we teach our children to operate from lack. When we see our children for all they are yet to become, barely recognizing all they already are, we teach them they are incomplete. For our children to see a look of disappointment in our eyes sows in them seeds of anxiety, self-doubt, hesitation, and inauthenticity. They then begin to believe they should be more beautiful, competent, smart, or talented. In this way, we strip them of their enthusiasm for expressing themselves as they are right now.”
Speaking from the perspective not of a parent but that of a child, I can attest firsthand to the excruciating emotional pain of not being allowed to be yourself—to be made to feel that you are not enough, trying to figure out who you need to be to deserve your parents’ (and eventually everyone else’s) approval…and love. The whole ordeal takes away so much of who you are that you end up with crumbled, unrecognizable pieces of yourself.
I understood that aside from me not looking anything like Shirley Temple, my mother’s high expectations of me were also based on a life she didn’t have. She didn’t want me to make the same mistakes she did and wanted to cement a future that she wanted for me. Never did what I want play a factor in any of it. Even during the times when she said, “She’s free to choose whatever she wants” were contingent on what she finds acceptable. It’s all well-intended, I realize, but it murdered my sense of self.
In an article she wrote for Today’s Parent The problem isn't your kids, it's you, Claire Sibonney shares how Tsabary’s conscious parenting “method” has helped changed the way she dealt with her own children. “I’ve started to let go of struggles around what the kids wear and eat every day—having mismatched, wild-haired little girls is a small price to pay for empowering them with self-expression and autonomy, and letting them explore the pleasures of food.”
“For example, in the past, I would have nagged, begged, used ultimatums and even spoon-fed them veggies while they were looking the other way or in mid-chew. Now I offer a few healthy choices and then let them be. It’s less stressful for all of us. In fact, the other day, my kindergartner ate cooked carrots for the first time since she was a baby—she served herself after observing the rest of us enjoying them.”
I couldn’t help but laugh while reading about Sibonney’s past veggie struggle with her kids. As a child, my grandmother used to chase me around the block (I’m not kidding) because I refused to eat raw egg yolks. Yep, you read that right. I was really skinny and they were convinced that feeding me that stuff would help me plump up—or as they coined it, to make me look “healthy.” When she’d finally caught me, she would hold me from behind, with one hand squeezing my cheeks to forcibly open my mouth, while her other hand slides the slimy yolks down my throat. Such fond memories….
The right to be loved just for being alive
In Tsebary’s other book, The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting, she wrote, “…Placing expectations on your child instead of allowing the child’s own natural inclinations to emerge spontaneously may well result in an emotional Grand Canyon between you and your child.”
The last dagger that my mother plunged into my heart came in the form of these words: “You don’t get to decide to break up with your husband without discussing it with me first.” I was 30 years old. As much as I loved her, I desperately needed to be on my own. I needed room to breathe and preserve the sanctity of the last traces of glue that were holding the mangled pieces of my Self.
When I finally packed my bags and left, I ended up thousands of miles on the other side of the world. We didn’t speak for five long years because of that. But it was a much-needed break for both us so we could both heal. For me, that’s to forcibly remove the hand that was covering my light. For her, it was to realize that I can be myself and turn out okay. That I can be myself and flourish. That I can be myself and make something of my life. When we finally spoke again, she said, “I’m proud of who you’ve become.”
Tsebary: “When you celebrate your children for their ability to be true to themselves, you encourage them to trust…You show them they don’t have to create a safety net because their safety net is already in place within their own being. You teach them to experience life for the sake of the experience, nothing more and nothing less.”
“….They need to know that by simply being on this Earth, they have a right to approval of who they intrinsically are. We don’t confer this right on them. Just by the fact they draw breath, they have the right to speak their mind, express their feelings, and embody their spirit. Such rights are bestowed with the birth certificate.”
Children should be cherished and nurtured in their completeness no matter what “package” they came into this world. They need to be free to express their true Self, and create a life from that sense of Self, never having to worry about not being accepted and loved because of it. Just like flowers, they need to be free to blossom just as they are, and if they happen to be a lily, no one is wishing for them to be a rose.