To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don't need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Since my son was born, he has always been in the lowest percentile in terms of height and weight. While friends and acquaintances, even complete strangers, celebrated their own children weighing in at the highest end of the spectrum, or marveled at a child being mistaken for one twice their age, they seemed embarrassed whenever my son’s smaller stature came up in conversation.
I don’t mind my son’s shortness. Genetics is something I have a hard time apologizing for. But I know other people do.
One time, my son’s classmate exclaimed with some surprise, “He’s four? But he’s so little!” I wasn’t embarrassed, but his father clearly was. He hastily tried to cover up for his child’s bluntness by telling him, “Oh, your friend might be little now, but he’ll keep eating and growing, and the next thing you know, he’ll shoot up like a weed. You never know, next year, he may even be taller than you!”
I couldn’t help but frown at this representation. First, that somehow shortness was a flaw to make up for, and second, that tallness was a promise that my son could reasonably be expected to fulfill.
Comparisons are unavoidable for kids among their own peer group, and being on the losing end of a comparison or competition can be hard to accept. As a parent, it feels easier and even more desirable in the moment to simply soothe away a child's frustration and hurt at being shorter, slower, less coordinated, bad at math or spelling or drawing, and so on and so forth. It feels easier to fall back on the usual pep talk, “Just keep trying and you’ll be just as good someday.”
Only, we don’t know that. We can keep trying all we want and never be as tall, as fast, as agile, or as good as the next person. My son eats well, sleeps tolerably, and enjoys physical activity, and yet he may never catch up in height to his peers. And so, what happens when I encourage him down a path towards a goal that he has little to no control over ever achieving? Assuming he remains one of the shortest people in the history of people, what will I have taught him, except that because he never managed to grow any taller, he may always consider himself a failure compared to those who did?
I cannot promise that my son will be taller than his classmate some day, but I can teach him how to accept, appreciate, and love being small. For example, he can still enjoy being carried when he tires from walking, while his much bigger cousins struggle to keep pace, long having outgrown their parents' arm strength. He can wear his favorite clothes for another year or even two sometimes, while his friends cycle through a different wardrobe every six months. Not to say that I will never encourage him to try to change or improve himself at all, but rather, I hope to encourage him to consider what he wants to improve based on what is achievable according his own standards, and not someone else's.
We are all susceptible to comparing ourselves with others, and measuring our performance against the standards of society. That is not the evil. The evil is when we make promises to ourselves that we are unable to fulfill -- or when we make promises that we ultimately do fulfill, but in the end, bear no intrinsic value to us beyond society's acceptance and approval.
As a parent, the challenge therefore, is not to encourage my son to merely improve himself, but rather, to learn to accept himself and in doing so, better understand what is worth pursuing and what is not.