La Chica, age 8, wanted to make pancakes from her special princess recipe book. Yes, Hell has a bookstore section, and Satan sells this cookbook. Unfortunately for me, she was already feeling a bit verklempt that morning by the time she decided to make breakfast. Her low frustration tolerance had already maxed out. And this is how it all went down:
La Chica: <cue whiney voice> Help me! I need help! I can’t do this!
Me: What do you need help with?
La Chica: <cue whiney voice> Everything! (insert grunt here)
Me: Be specific please. Use your words. What exactly do you need help with? Gathering the ingredients? Mixing? Cooking the pancakes? Using a normal voice?
La Chica: I SAID EVERYTHING!
So fortunately that morning I had not yet used up my reserve of patience and tolerance. I could see she was decompensating, and quickly. She so desperately wanted to make these pancakes herself. She takes great pride in this feat, as she is widely known for her pancakes throughout the cul-de-sac. I wanted to help her succeed. So it took an excruciatingly long time, but we finally got to the point of her using her words to precisely indicate what she needed help with.
Then it took more time to remind her she has been able to complete each of these tasks herself before. I reminded her if she would breathe and calm down, I was sure she could do it again today. I reminded her she can live through her frustration. I reminded her she’s not nearly as helpless as she portrays. I reminded her she has the internal resources and words and ability and knowledge to figure this out.
For Cinderella’s sake, it took forever for those pancakes to come out. Thank God I snacked on grapes behind her back. And possibly a bagel. But breakfast wasn’t the real issue. What she really wanted help with was her own ambivalence with her role in this world. She wanted to be validated and liked, while owning her place in this world. And she doesn’t know how to do both simultaneously. I empathize with her. I still struggle with that some days.
Here’s the deal with her. She wants to please. Don’t we all? She also wants people to save her, to view her positively enough to help her. Don’t we all? She has some executive functioning issues, and it’s difficult for her to not only grasp certain ideas, but to express her ideas as well. She is a fan of positive regard. Aren’t we all? People rush to her aid. Her brother, her father, her friends, her teachers. Everyone thinks she’s so sweet. And she is, don’t get me wrong. But she’s also creating a role in her life where she relies on people to save her. She’s creating her own learned helplessness.
I am trying to teach her to be grateful for people’s aid, but not to rely on it. I am trying to teach her resilience and perseverance. I am trying to teach her there’s pride in her efforts. I am trying to teach her to respect herself enough to stand on her own and make her own mistakes and critically think her way out of situations.
She truly is so proud of herself when she completes tasks by herself. She can be fiercely stubborn and independent. Yet it’s hard for her to fail. So oftentimes she takes the easy route to receiving positive regard.
I’m trying to teach her this ambivalence is a lifetime struggle, and at each point in our lives, we must do these hard things–living in the ambivalence and uncertainties and failures of life. It’s easy to take the hard line and be fiercely independent, like I used to be. I took pride in doing everything myself, being an over-achiever, never asking for help. It’s also easy to rely on everyone to help you, like my mother. Then you abdicate any responsibility in your life and easily fall into a victim role.
The hard work is in the balance. There’s a sweet spot of being afraid of failure, but not to the point of shutting down in stoicism. Instead, it’s opening yourself enough to be vulnerable to ask for help. This is the authentic seeking of assistance. It’s working hard at doing and learning and trying. Of being scared and brave to take a risk. To risk trying something new. To risk asking for help. To risk writing your own role in this one life of yours.
I’m trying to teach La Chica that other’s opinions do not define a person. That failures do not define a person. She has difficulty with word-finding on a good day. I’m trying to teach her to use her words to write her own story and define her role in her life story. Which is mostly why I loathe the obsession with princesses. Why strive to be the #2 lady of the land waiting for a prince to save you when you can be the Queen and call the shots? Let them eat cake, I say. Pancakes, that is.