Much of parenting is an illusion, one that starts with the children’s belief in parents’ omnipotence.
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When I was in elementary school, my dad was the world’s greatest mechanic. He could fix a flat tire on my bicycle with ease. His strong fingers and hairy forearms would silently maneuver this way and that, projecting an air of competence and security that enveloped me.
When I was in middle school, my dad pulled open the “way back” door of our rusty, wood-paneled station wagon and it fell right off our car in the middle of a crowded parking lot. I burned with embarrassment as my perception of my father’s mechanical skills crashed to the ground as well. Thus began my realization that my dad was more intellectually gifted than mechanically skilled.
Fortunately, however, the illusion of my secure, fixable world had been so ingrained by this point, I did not have a crisis of confidence. In retrospect, I realize my father’s self-talk, or more accurately self-silence, fostered my own developing self-confidence and can-do attitude. I know now that all those “fix-it” situations were not his strength, but he did not engage in negative self-assessment. Instead, he simply stayed quiet while he worked, which led me to fill in the blanks with an aura of security. Sometimes, silence is indeed golden. And when I would call him some kind of amazing “bicycle fixer,” he would not deflect the compliment or explain that others could do it better than him. He simply said “thanks.”
I try to remember this when faced with various mechanical situations in my own family life. For example, I have two daughters with voluminous hair so our shower and sink drains are often clogged with rodent-size globs of hair. While my extraction skills (and tools) have improved over the years, I am far from a plumber. My personal low occurred when I almost got a gnarled coat hanger stuck in a drain, but that’s another story (that I kept to myself).
Your self-confidence begets your child’s
But because I usually avoid engaging in negative self-talk—at least the audible kind—while I’m wrestling those tumbleweeds, my daughters think I’m the world’s greatest plumber. (Though that title is fading as they get older.) And any time they declare me a fantastic “drain fixer,” I simply say “thanks.”
Granted, a child’s development of self-confidence is complex and involves questions of age and stage—e.g., sometimes it is appropriate to share with children certain personal weaknesses and then model how to overcome them. And older children gain self-confidence by learning how to fix things by themselves. But with young children, the experience of a parent’s can-do mentality can be invaluable, even if that parent can’t actually do something well. Children are not always ready for full transparency. While we don’t want them to be deceived, we also don’t want them to worry or to learn self-doubt.
In the end, much of parenting is an illusion, one that starts with the children’s belief in parents’ omnipotence—hence the proverbial “my dad could kick your dad’s butt.” Inevitably, the illusion transforms into a more sober “my dad can barely fix our drains,” but hopefully by that time the aura of security modeled by devoted dads and moms can help children develop their own sense of competence.
My father was not, in fact, a good mechanic. During my early years, however, his constant presence, visible effort, and quiet confidence made me believe he was. That taught me so much more than how to fix a flat tire.