“I feel awful!” my nine-year old daughter wailed, throwing herself on the kitchen floor like a dishrag.
“Please don’t make me go to school!”
Her ailments grew more elaborate each morning that week.
“I’m like a woodland spring in a drought!”
“I’m a fairy stuck in a flower that won’t bloom!”
Then, I found a notice from her teacher floating on the kitchen table among the crumpled backpack trash that appears at the end of each school day.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh. That,” she scowled, her arms crossed as if she had just closed for business, but I knew that we finally had a start.
In fourth grade, for the first time, the Student Council representative from each class is chosen by popular vote rather than at random. Candidates are required to write and deliver a speech to their class. My daughter was terrified. She had been debating running for class representative for days, her anxiety bubbling over right before school when she knew she would be faced with her murmuring peers: Who is running? Who will you vote for?
I wanted to encourage her to run, but we’d been here before. She wants to be the best soccer player on the team, but she hides in her closet with a book when it’s time to go to practice. It’s the same with piano and dance. She’s not certain that she will accomplish what her creative mind sets forth when she first fantasizes some level of achievement, so she ends up assuming the worst: that her fantastic fears of failure will come true instead.
One small part of me wanted to take the notice about the class election and bury it in the recycling bin along with all the shiny holiday catalogs and their promises of joy and splendor. But when my daughter brought it up again the next day, I knew we were already halfway around the track. I had to help her quiet her anxiety, temper her fears, and live through her own process. Rather than spit, moan, and make faces at the difficulty ahead like she was doing, I needed an actual strategy. But how do you encourage a child who isn’t certain that she has what it takes to fulfill her goals?
“What if I don’t win?” she wondered aloud, “what if I come in dead last?”
That’s when I nabbed an idea from some random quote in my Facebook feed.
“Well,” I began, “you might not win—that’s true. But you definitely won’t win if you don’t try.”
Turns out, it was just the thing. She grew quiet, chewing on her lip.
That evening, we made a list of her leadership qualities and I let her type them out in sentences on my computer. Seeing the very best of herself on display gave her confidence to add her own flair.
“I’m creative and good with colors!” she wrote.
Then, I listened to her read her speech aloud in what we call her quiet voice. I want to call it her nothing voice, but I don’t say that, because it is something. It’s the voice she uses to get a running start. I have to let her talk to me in that voice even if it makes me feel uncomfortable—it’s the voice in which she appears small, anxious, and unsure. If not at home with me, then where else does she get to use it?
It was raining on the day the speeches were to be given, so I drove my kids to school. As I dropped them off, I turned to my daughter. I told her that she is the bravest girl I know, and that I really love that about her. She had tucked her speech into her backpack that morning, and I trusted that she’d know which voice to use when she read it aloud.
The next day, the election winner would be announced at school after lunch. I took my dog for a morning walk in the woods where my daughter’s class happened to be on a field trip. I walked along the trail for a few minutes before seeing some of her classmates.
“Hello Mrs. Shanley!” They called to me. “What’s your dogs name again?” someone asked.
Children seem so cheerful most of the time.
I stood surrounded by her classmates when my daughter ran up and wrapped her arms around me. She kissed me before leaning over to nuzzle the dog. I realized then that one of her strengths, the kind that’s both hard to put on paper and to say out loud, is this: she can stop and feel the weight of every emotion, yet still move through her day with a full, clear heart.
As I walked out of the woods, I saw her teacher, who caught my eye and waved me over.
“I have to tell you…she was elected,” she said quietly, smiling. My eyes welled up and I reached for her arm.
After school that day, I met my daughter outside on the steps.
“Congratulations!” I said. I wanted to ask her how she’d found out—was she excited? Surprised? But the relief on her face told me all I needed to know.
“Thanks,” she said happily.
We didn’t tease out her emotions or inspect them as we do so often together when something is not right; the process was over, the outcome joyful. I hugged her, I held her for a moment, and I told her I was proud of her. Then we piled into the car with her little brothers, the dog, and a pile of overdue library books, and went out for ice cream.