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Teaching your children to let go of others' expectations

January 29, 2014

This morning I experienced a small miracle. I emerged from my bedroom at seven o’clock after waking up (all on my own!) without children crying or yelling from their bedrooms to wake me. It felt like a little slice of heaven.

I saw the light on in my daughter’s room, so I peeked in to say good morning. I expected to see her playing with her stuffed animals or putting her babies to bed or looking at books, but she wasn’t doing any of those things. She was huddled in a ball on the floor crying all by herself.

I knelt down beside her and scooped her up onto my lap.

“Avery, what’s wrong? Why are you crying, honey?”

“I don’t want to go to dance today,” she wimpered.

Every Tuesday for the past year during her scheduled rest time at school, she has participated in a dance class. She’s loved it. Over the last several weeks, though, she has seemed hesitant to participate. She has tried to hide her dance clothes, thinking if she didn’t have her clothes she wouldn’t have to go to class. After several discussions, we decided to have her take a break from dance class. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer from her about why she didn’t want to go, but the bottom line is, she’s four years old. If she doesn’t want to go to dance class, that is fine with me.

“I already told you that you didn’t have to go to dance class,” I said. “You’re not going to go today. We talked about it, remember”?

“Yeah, but, Mom, what about Miss Tracey?” she asked, worried.

Without her saying another word, I understood completely.

“Are you worried that Miss Tracey is going to be disappointed in you if you don’t do dance anymore?”

She dissolved in tears once more. “Yes, Momma,” she said.

I hugged her as tight as I possibly could.

“Avery, no one is going to be disappointed in you. Mommy loves you and is so proud of you whether you dance or don’t dance. I am not disappointed, and you don’t have to worry about what Miss Tracey thinks. It’s okay if you don’t want to dance.

In a second, her face brightened. It was as if her load had been lifted instantly, and she was free. I felt incredible relief as well. I was able to say to her what my heart has always ached for my girl to know- I love you just the way you are, and you don’t have to perform or achieve or be anything other than yourself for me. There isn’t anything you could do that could make me love you any more than I already do.

I understood the pressure she was feeling to be what others wanted her to be because I, too, have felt that pressure. I was always a good student, and I felt the pressure to perform academically. It was my identity. It was what made me good and worthy. Who would I be and how could I be loveable if I weren’t smart?

I don’t want my girl to live with the fear of wondering what would happen if she couldn’t live up to the expectations of others- mine or anyone else’s. Yes, I would love to see her dance in the recital at the end of the year, and I would love to take pictures of her in a beautiful pink tutu. But more than that, I want to give her the freedom to live her own life, not the life I want for her.

On our way to school this morning, another opportunity presented itself to clarify my message. We’ve seen the Disney movie “Frozen” twice now, and we love it. We listen to the soundtrack in the car every morning. As Elsa sang “Let it Go,” Avery asked me what Elsa meant. She says:

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see

Be the good girl you always have to be

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know

Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

I don’t care

What they’re going to say

Let the storm rage on,

The cold never bothered me anyway

I said, “Remember this morning when you were sad because you thought Miss Tracey or Mommy would be disappointed in you if you didn’t go to dance?”.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Well, I think Elsa is feeling the same way. She has worried her whole life what people would think of her if they knew the real Elsa. Finally, she says, ‘Let it go,’ because she doesn’t want to worry anymore about what everyone else thinks of her. She just wants to be herself.”

“Oh,” she said, and we proceeded to listen to the music. I know that she probably doesn’t understand the deep implications of this conversation. This is a conversation that I will need to repeat many times over in many different ways as she grows. There will be many people in her life who pressure her to perform or conform to their expectations. I hope she’ll learn to recognize the guilt that she will inevitably feel as false and wrong. I hope she’ll just let it go.