Embarrass Your Kids, It's Good for Them

Of course my daughters think I'm weird. But isn't it my job to show them that being yourself is actually okay?
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Recently I was walking one of my fourth-grade daughters to school. We were holding hands, swinging them as we strode, and I was quietly singing the Bangles' "Manic Monday." We'd sung it together loudly many times in the car. But apparently this was neither the time nor the place for a 1980s flashback. "Mom, stop it!" she hissed as we saw a cluster of her friends up ahead. In fairness to her, I have a terrible voice, and I was fully prepared to cease and desist, but I felt like it was my job as a mother to give her a hard time first.

"But why? I'm happy. I like to sing when I'm happy." She rolled her long-lashed blue eyes and looked at me imploringly. I saw a touch of desperation behind her cool-kid facade, so I smiled and said okay. I stopped singing and we kept walking, hand in hand.

I remember my own mother singing in the street when I was young, and me begging her to please oh please just...don't! When she wouldn't stop, I'd fall back and walk way behind her, trying to disappear into my Flashdance-style cropped sweatshirt. We joke about it today. But my mom, who was single and struggling to raise me and my autistic brother, was under a lot of stress. I now know that I should have encouraged any expression of joy on her part.

But of course, like most kids, I loomed largest in my own story line. My mom was a supporting character, an occasional obstacle to my happiness or a foil to my self-discovery. She was there to feed and clothe me, to love me and help me be my glorious, dramatic self. She could be herself all she wanted -- as long as it wasn't in public and in front of my friends.

So there I was with one of my 9-year-old twins. In the past year she had noticeably dipped her sparkly silver-polished toe into tweendom, which means she is alternately the snuggly, loving, funny girl she has always been and a deep-sighing, moody prewoman who is mortified by many things I do, including hugging her, making polite conversation with her friends or insisting she wear a jacket. (I know, can you believe it?) When we're alone together or among adults we don't know, we can be goofy, crossing our eyes in defiance of the risk that they will stay that way, and even making videos of ourselves singing "Manic Monday" into my iPhone. But when a pal or anyone under 12 happens by, I am "so weird," her albatross, someone to distance herself from quickly.

I've discovered that this only makes me want to embarrass her more -- within reason, of course. I would never reveal her secrets or even share her name in this article. But when she seems sensitive about me being myself in her presence, I take great joy in being even more fully myself -- discussing the relative merits of Justin Bieber versus One Direction with her friends, extolling her many virtues, acting altogether "not normal," whatever that means, and yes, singing just a little louder.

A big reason I do this is that it's plain fun for me, and it feels like a little "gimme" from the universe, payback for having calmed all those tantrums and middle-of-the-night fevers through the years. But I also hope to teach her what it took me too long to learn: that not caring too much what others think of your weird mom (and, by extension, you) can be a great lesson. I believe it's part of the secret to a happy life, one in which you can make choices and friends based on who you are, not who you think you should be.

As we got within 20 feet of her friends, my daughter let go of my hand, not wanting them to see that -- gasp! -- she secretly likes her mom. "What? You won't hold my hand all of a sudden? Well, then, I get to sing!" I declared, all mock indignity. She sighed and took my hand and we walked a few more feet, when she dropped it again. I picked up where I left off : "I was kissing Valentino by a crystal blue Italian stream..."

She grabbed my hand again, and I piped down. She was trying really hard not to smile. Then she dropped my hand again, dramatically, deliberately, and grabbed it again several times, so I was going on and off like a radio. By this time we were both cracking up.

As I left her, I heard her friend ask what was so funny, and she replied:

"Whatever. My mom, she's so weird."

"Yeah, mine, too," said her friend.

"She's so embarrassing."

In the decades since my mother mortified me on the streets with her vocal stylings, I have discovered that most of the world is far too self-involved to pay much attention to the things that we think are so embarrassing. Being yourself makes other people feel free to be themselves, too. All of a sudden you have a group of people relaxing and not taking things too seriously rather than a cluster of uncomfortable tweens flipping their hair and angsting over the "right" sneakers. I figure if I can teach my daughters to give just a tiny bit less of a hoot, I will have done my job well.

Stephanie Dolgoff is happy to live with her twin daughters in New York City, where people do much nuttier things on the street than sing '80s pop.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.


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