I have a picture of me as a little girl. In it, I appear to be a rather surly ballerina, not really wanting to get my picture taken. I must have been around four in the picture. Though pictures may be worth a thousand words, this one doesn’t tell the whole story. Funny, though I was small, I still remember the circumstances surrounding this photograph.
I loved to dance. Even though I couldn’t tell my right foot from my left, (and had to be the only girl in the class with a humiliating sticker on the toe of her right dance shoe), I couldn’t get enough of twirling and moving to the music. My ballet class was getting pictures taken before the big dance review. All the little ballerinas had just been handed out costumes. I loved my big poofy tutu, my sparkling sequins sewn onto my baby blue leotard and my tiara, cleverly created out of pipe cleaners. My mom had curled my normally stock-straight hair especially for the occasion (probably with spongy pink rollers). And even more exciting, I was going to wear make-up for the first time. I felt like a princess.
The dance teacher had asked some teenage girls from the neighborhood to come and help us get make-up on for our picture session. These girls, with their ratted hair, turned up collars, and numerous plastic bangles up their arms seemed so exotic, so enticing, so grown up. I knew I wanted to be just like them. I couldn’t wait until they put on my make-up.
Each of the ballerinas in the class had a different color leotard with the same white tutus and same sequin pattern. While the teenagers were applying make-up to all of us, I heard them squeal over the pink leotard. One girl I idolized told my classmate, “I just love lavender! It’s my favorite!” Another informed someone else, “Wow, yellow is the best!” I kept thinking next, someone would turn to me and tell me she absolutely adored blue. Surely, someone would favor the color I was wearing. But no one said a word to me. My make-up was soon done, and I was ushered into a line to get my photo taken. Still no comment about my color. I was so distraught no one had said anything about my color being beautiful , I started to cry. My teacher quickly rushed over and comforted me, though, being somewhat shy, I wouldn’t tell her what the problem was. My tears were dried, but my mood wasn’t much improved.
My turn came to have my moment with the camera. “Smile, princess,” I can still hear the photographer coax. Though minutes before I had felt like royalty, I felt like the ugly, unwanted servant when no one would claim blue, would claim me, as their favorite. I was simply too sad to smile for the camera.
I have a four-year-old myself now. Her temperament almost exactly matches mine at that age. She is as sensitive as my skin after a sunburn. Just a few days ago, I had my four kids race to clean up the living room. Each of them did a great job picking up, but the four-year-old took a little longer (yes, even than the one-year-old) so when she got her part done, my husband felt the need to compliment her. Not wanting the other kids to feel left out, I called all three of the others by name and told them each thank you.
Her big blue eyes rimmed with watery tears, my four-year-old came up and said, “What about me, mommy? Aren’t you going to thank me, too? Didn’t I do a good job, too?” I had thought my husband’s compliment would be sufficient for her, but apparently, she needed more. She needed her mommy to tell her personally she was wanted, loved, and appreciated.
When you have more than one child, it can get hard to have each of them feel loved, needed, and cherished. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been drawn and quartered, each of my four kids’ needs taking an arm or a leg and tugging for all they’re worth. But I never want my children to feel like they are somehow less than any other. So of course, I gave her a kiss and told my four-year-old she had done a great job, too. I have decided to try and keep a mental list of praise. When one of my children gets praise from me, I’ll try to follow it up, within the next little while–not immediately–with genuine praise for another one.
Genuine will be the key. Kids can tell when you’re blowing more smoke than their beloved Thomas the Tank Engine. And I certainly don’t want any of them to feel like the bluest ballerina.