It has happened.
On Monday, after a day sick in bed, I went in to the school to pick up my kids (Jacob is 13 and Kathleen is 11 and both are at Ridley College). As I walked in to the library, one of the nicest teachers ever, Mrs. Bradley, walked towards me and greeted me with a big and warm “Hello!” So I returned the greeting with an enthusiastic, “Hi!”
And that’s when it happened.
Behind her back, I saw Jacob, eyes glaring at me and motioning with his hands for me to ‘Keep it down’. And I saw Kathleen, also coming up behind Mrs. Bradley, pointing with irritation at her own hair, as if to say to me, ‘Mom, you forgot to fix your hair’.
Without meaning to, I was embarrassing my children.
Now I admit to embarrassing them in the past. Just a few weeks ago, we were all at Chapters buying books for our vacation, and I was off on my own browsing when I recognized the tune of the background music. It was the familiar opening beats to Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ and I found myself singing along:
Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen,
Pour myself a cup of ambition.
I was really enjoying myself, actually, and was impressing myself for knowing all the words! Then my daughter came around the corner, and I quickly saw the look on her face – she was horrified. In the car, she came to life reliving the moment that she spotted her mother ‘actually singing’ at Chapters.
I get that she would find that embarrassing. But this time, at school, I wasn’t doing anything out of order. I was just being my normal self.
That night, I lay in bed thinking about how I felt about this. I thought about my Nana, who used to write letters to her kids’ teachers that my aunts still talk about. I thought about how I felt about my parents, when at Christmas, they sent me to school with gifts for the teachers that embarrassed me. I remember my teacher opening gifts of chocolates and mugs filled with candy – normal gifts – and then I had to hand over my gift in front of everyone. I was so embarrassed to give them a bottle of wine, even though my parents, both teachers, assured me that it was the best kind of gift. (And now guess what I give to my kids’ teachers?)
As a parent, I don’t want to try to embarrass my kids. But I also never want to compromise “being myself” not to embarrass them. In my opinion, likely the most important benefit of a strong and nurturing independent school culture is that it truly helps young people to KNOW and BE themselves…perhaps the most important of life long pursuits.
It is therefore more important for our children to observe us modeling authenticity of character – embarrassment warts and all! – than to change who we are to preserve their level of comfort in the company of their peers. After all, it is far more by our actions than our words that we support and ultimately give our children permission to be themselves.
So if it means that my frizzy hair is pulled back into a ponytail, or that I greet someone I really admire with enthusiasm, my kids are just going to have to live with it. As for singing Dolly Parton in public? I may try to avoid that in the future, for their sake and mine.