I'm often reminded of how much I can learn from my children, and today has been no exception. Daniel, who is ten months old, has learned to climb the stairs, from the very bottom to the very top. He's fully committed at all times to scaling the staircase (just look at that gleeful grin!), and although I've scooped him up what feels like hundreds of times and thwarted his intentions, this afternoon we held a family session of sanctioned mountaineering. Daniel clambered up the stairs and I hovered behind him in case he fell, whilst Joshua, aged three, stood at the top cheering his little brother on by yelling "Come on, Baby! You can do it!" There's something about being young and unburdened by expectation and limitation and a weary sense of experience that I find very inspiring. Daniel derives obvious joy from attempting the challenge of ascending the stairs, and he is as delighted with himself when he reaches the halfway mark as he is upon reaching the top step. The journey is a pleasure. He never doubts his ability to reach its end. And while I observed my baby boy scrambling onwards and upwards, I mused silently upon the following topic: if we start our lives with absolute confidence in ourselves and our ability to do anything, at which point is that confidence diluted, and why does insecurity begin to creep in, slowly but surely?
I'm not sure I know the answer to that, and surely it's a complex combination of factors that cause us to doubt ourselves and our capacity to achieve and succeed and measure up to whatever standards we set for ourselves as we grow older and journey our way through life. And the power we allow others to exert over us, whether it's power they wish to have or whether they are entirely ignorant of the fact that it exists, can play a significant role in the diminution of confidence and assurance with which children seem so abundantly equipped. Of this I am certain, and it's fascinating to take a moment to think about why it is so easy to become convinced that everyone is perfect except you, and why another human being's opinion should influence another's self-esteem as much as it does sometimes.
A friend and I recently discussed at length our respective difficulties with performing musically in public. His stems from the fear of failure,
and mine is rooted in insecurity about what others will think of me and
my ability or lack thereof. It takes me back to my teenage days when my
worst nightmare was the prospect of playing the violin or piano in a
school concert. Somehow I have convinced myself that there is a very high possibility that I will be judged and found wanting, which prevents me from performing to anywhere near the best of my ability. It can feel as it there are a lot of opportunities available to have people stand in judgement over you, can't it? I was once taken to task for not providing my crying baby with a dummy by a sales assistant in the Co-Op (although there are an equal number of people poised to criticise those people who do choose to pacify their infants thus). A recent article in the Telegraph declared that "Sending children to nursery can harm their development, study claims", and if you do decide that your child's going to go to nursery anyway in spite of these dire predictions, you can look forward to receiving regular progress updates on his or her social development, basic language skills and self-care at the tender age of two, which the same newspaper reported during the same week without a hint of irony. OFSTED, which inspects UK schools and issues a summary of findings based upon a plethora of criteria, has recently announced that its "satisfactory" rating - and the last time I looked, "satisfactory" was roughly defined as "good enough" - is to be renamed, becoming "requires improvement" instead, and putting teachers in the interesting but depressing position of being good enough one week and not good enough the next. I read recently about a lady whose autistic daughter caused a noisy scene in the middle of a food court, whereupon a fellow diner turned to her friend and loudly confided "If that were my child...!" And there are many, many more examples out there of ways in which we can be judged by professionals or fellow parents or random bystanders or experts, and it's interesting - and, I think, important - to stop and consider the effect that judgements can have upon us if we allow them to do so, and furthermore to consider carefully which of these judgements should be permitted to impact upon us.
Now I'm all for self-improvement, I genuinely am. I believe that schools should be inspected and held to account, and I know that it's in the very best interests of a child to identify learning difficulties as early as possible, and I'm all in favour of giving thought to the various conundrums that parenthood presents, such as whether or not to provide a baby with a dummy when it cries. But do you know when judgement goes too far? When it causes insecurity rather than determination to move forward. When it destroys confidence rather than instilling an energetic vision for change. When it batters self-esteem rather than providing hope. And it's vital to know the difference, and to learn when to take criticism seriously and when to disregard it entirely.
There are a thousand ways in which others can size us up and offer a summary of their findings. And there are, of course, times when we should take notice, and think carefully about whether or not we should or could make changes in our lives. But, as Eleanor Roosevelt once pointed out, no one can make us feel inferior without our own consent. School inspections can't be avoided, but they can be faced with the confidence of one who has worked hard and prepared well and who - crucially - has learned to sift judgements and gauge their worth and retain a healthy perspective as a result. I am blessed enough to have people in my life who accept me as I am: one precious friend comes into my home for coffee and conversation almost each week, and she steps over the piles of laundry on the floor as if they weren't there, we laugh together about the challenges of housekeeping, and I am never made to feel as if I fall short of some arbitrarily imposed standard. Her kindness and lack of judgement over my chaotic domestic environment makes me feel encouraged and emboldened to face the afternoon, rather than inferior and disheartened. And in the same way that the conscious shunning of fashion magazines - which invariably promote and endorse the notion of physical perfection - seems to liberate me from the feeling that I must aspire fruitlessly to something I will never realistically attain, a conscious dissassociation every so often from the influence of those who would diminish us instead of offering support and helpful advice is something we could all stand to practise on a daily basis. There's a lot to be said for doing our best and laughing joyfully, instead of allowing insecurity to convince us that we'll never be good enough, however hard we try.
Tomorrow I'll watch my baby son climbing the stairs with ever-increasing speed and well-deserved confidence. His older brother will, no doubt, be standing at the top of the staircase and cheering him on. And I'll be reminded again of the importance of both giving and receiving encouragement.
Please join me.