No one handed me a textbook (or, rather, a picture book) when I was a baby and told me to study it so I could earn a masters degree in self-doubt and people pleasing. I had to figure out that shit on my own. The level of hesitation and accommodation I operate with every day is also not something one is just born with, either. Like everyone else in the world, my personality was a careful dance where one partner was nature, and the other was nurture.
Nature's most crucial contribution to my identity is empathy. If a stranger walks into a coffee shop after getting fired from their job, I can feel their sadness. And once I take on their depression, since I'm the center of the Universe, I don't walk up and hug them. This would take a level of confidence I'm incapable of. Instead, I take this environmental feedback and get bummed for the rest of the day.
This natural tendency towards empathy, if nurtured in a loving, stable home, can create an adult who takes the pain in her heart that she feels when she sees someone suffering and translates it into decisive action. When she witnesses the number of homeless people in her neighborhood increase, she goes out and starts a coat drive. She takes the anger she feels about the 2016 election and translates that into a leadership position at her local Human Rights organization. Her talent, when nurtured correctly, brings joy and goodness into the world.
My home, the site of my nurturing, wasn't a stable one. While my mom did everything she could to create consistency and warmth, my dad did his best to make our home erratic and volatile; my dad's wrath overshadowed anything good my mom tried to cultivate.
What I understand about punishment, which is minimal, is that, if done correctly, is that it’s just one way a parent can modify a child's behavior. If a child gets a timeout every time she intentionally dumps her milk on the floor, she will eventually connect the dots and come to understand that she's not supposed to throw her milk on the ground. She might even take her conclusion one step further and assume that throwing any drink on the floor is a terrible idea.
This was not the pedagogy my dad, the warden of my childhood home, followed when exacting punishments on his kids. His only requirements for discipline was it needed to be arbitrary, completely hard to follow, and physically or emotionally violent whenever possible. I've been called an asshole for dancing joyously in our backyard but encouraged to dance and sing at Knights of Columbus events. Once, because I allegedly was talking too much, my dad yanked my ear until he almost pulled it right out of my head. At other times, if I sat and stared off into the distance at dinner, he'd suspect me of being high (it didn't matter if I was six-years-old) or just being disrespectful for not listening to he and my mom discuss the Insurance Agency they owned together. He would discipline me accordingly.
I tried to trace the logic of these punishments so I could avoid doing the things that ignited my dad's anger. All attempts at finding patterns led me in circles. When all endeavors to create rules to dodge my dad's wrath failed, the only conclusion I could come to was that I was a terrible, defective person who was always responsible for everyone else's unhappiness. There was nothing else I could infer since I was the only consistent variable in all the punishments.
As a result, I've tried to make myself as unobtrusive as possible and smile a bunch to make everyone happy with me. I push myself against the wall of life as much as I can so I won't get in anyone's way. And when problems arise in my world, I assume all blame. I run into chairs and apologize to them. I one time almost assumed full responsibility for an accident that never happened. I'm an easy mark for a grifter because I've been hard-wired to keep turning the other cheek in the hopes that, at some point, someone will give me a good-natured punch on my chin and say "good job."
It took a long time and a lot of crazy punishments for me to become the way I am. The good (actually terrible) news for my kids is that they can learn about people pleasing from the best. Since I don't punish my kids and do a reward based system (because I'm a superior parent. But not really because I’m kind of the worst), there's not an opportunity for me to show as much as tell. So I give them the Cliffs Notes version, and I tell.
When we go out in public, I emphasize that kindness is paramount. When my kids were toddlers, I even encouraged them to let asshole toddlers on the playground take their toys. I don't know why I did this. Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Perhaps it was me being a new parent. Or it might be because it's the only way I know how to interact with the world. I've consistently insisted that my kids always make the polite option their number one option.
I love that my kids are so kind. I feel proud that they look at other children in pain and want to make them feel better. I'm stoked they don't mind sharing. I know this is a good combo of nature/nurture that Greg and I have worked on. There are times, however, when I see that I have gone overboard with the niceness doctrine.
Darla was given a mini backpack with a giant glittery D and a big, puffy, pink pompom on it for her birthday. It was too small to wear as a regular backpack, so she used it as her lunchbox. After a week, I found her bento box in the lost and found, but no backpack. When I asked her what had happened to the bag, I was surprised by her answer.
"Oh, I saw that some first grader had it," she said. "Julia and Anahit (her friends) went up to the girl and said it was my backpack, but she said it wasn't. She said it was hers."
"Wait, let me see if I've got this straight," I said. "You confronted her, and she denied it, and you still don't have your backpack? Why didn't you tell a teacher."
"Maybe it's not really my backpack," she said.
"You're telling me she just happened to show up with a replica of your backpack on the day you lost yours?" I asked. Given my supreme level of self-doubt, I had to do my own work to fight back the voice in my head that said: "maybe it was just a coincidence."
That night, Greg and I spent a lot of time convincing Darla to confront the girl. We gave her strategies to catch her in her lie ("Ask her where she got it from"), and what her plan would be if she didn't give it back ("Tell a teacher"). I sent her off to school and thought about my friendly kid for the rest of the day.
When I picked her up from school, she proudly showed me her retrieved backpack.
"How did you do it?" I asked
"Well, first I asked her where she got it from," said Darla, babbling with excitement. "And when she said 'Target,' I said 'nope, it's from Justice.' When she didn't give it back to me, I told the lunch monitor who asked her why she had a 'D' on her backpack if her name was Jamie. The girl said 'it's my middle name. No, wait. It's my sister's name. No, wait. It's my sister's middle name.' and then the teacher made her give it back to me."
"Oh my god," I said beaming. "I'm so proud of you."
She stood up for herself, which is something that I've never been able to do. She struggled against her self-doubt and emerged with her backpack.
Later that night, she brought her backpack over to me and showed me the tag inside that read "Jamie."
"What a sneaky little girl," I said hesitantly. "She wrote her name in the backpack so 'you'd think it was hers."
Darla laughed and put the bag away. I tried my best to keep a smile on my face despite being overwhelmed by doubt. Did I just encourage my daughter to gang up on an innocent first grader and steal her backpack with her 'sister's initial of her middle name on it?