Friday, January 7, 2011

Being Good

When I was a kid, I was very "good." What I mean by that is that I was obedient, I didn't break rules, and I got good grades. I even got into the gifted program at school. My parents and teachers constantly told me how smart and how good I was, so I should've been happy, right?

I wasn't. I was miserable. I had panic attacks almost every morning and would often miss school due to anxiety-induced nausea, which just made me feel even more guilty because missing school was "bad". I once broke down in tears because I got a 100 instead of a 105 on a spelling test; another time because my conduct marker got moved from A to B for passing a note. I felt this pressure even as early as kindergarten, when I had a nightmare that I was arrested and taken to jail for not paying attention during field day.

This is the kind of behavior often associated with overbearing, achievement-driven parents, but that wasn't what was going on here. In fact, we had almost no rules at home and my parents never doled out any kind of punishment or reward for grades, other than saying they were proud when I got a good report card. But at that age I'd never gotten a *bad* report card, so it wasn't fear of having that praise removed that stressed me out. I was always naturally perfectionistic, shy, nervous, and eager to please. The plain fact was that the same personality traits that made me "good" at school also made it terrifying and unbearably stressful for me. Add to that the fact that being constantly told I was "good" and "smart" made me feel superior to the other kids, which made them find me annoying, which made me lonely, and you've got a recipe for a very unhappy kid!

It took me a lot of growing, healing, experience, and a healthy dose of rebellion to realize that this kind of "being good" isn't really much good for anyone. I wasn't doing it to make my life better or happier, or to make anyone else's life better or happier. I was only doing it to keep people from yelling at me, which is a pretty poor reason to do anything. I'd feel desperately sad if any of the youth in my life, or my future children, started making their decisions based on what would keep people from yelling at them. I don't want to see any kids having any nightmares about carrying their little Minnie Mouse lunchbox into scary grown-up jail. You can't be your authentic self when you're living with that kind of fear, and worse still, you start building your entire self-image around how "good" you are. When you're full on fake praise for stupid shit - "You colored the lion yellow! Good girl!" - you start thinking "I'm good because I color in lions like I'm supposed to." You don't learn that you are good because you give great hugs, or because you're very creative, or because you rescue bugs and put them outside instead of squishing them, or because you just exist.

And you don't learn what actually is good in life. I don't want any child of mine learning that "goodness" equates to making things the right colors. (I'm not so sure I want my children believing in right and wrong colors, for that matter. I definitely remember being firmly told in elementary school that human skin is "peach.") I don't plan to hang any sort of conditional form of "good" over their heads, but I'd much rather they concern themselves with doing good than with being good. I want them to learn that it is good to be kind to yourself, to other living beings, and to the Earth. If it doesn't benefit anybody, then what good is it?

Being good as a kid never made me feel good at all. But I feel good when I help someone find the right train on the subway, defend things I believe in, recycle, help mail newsletters to queer prisoners, interact patiently and respectfully with the kids I babysit, buy fair-trade chocolate, cheer up a friend, sing in the UU choir, and take good care of my pets. I also feel good when I'm kind to myself: when I do yoga, dance, spend time in nature, listen to soothing music, take a hot shower, eat good food, nap, give myself permission to pout and cry, dress how I want, meditate, pray, laugh, and drink herbal tea. I'm not perfect at remembering to do either of those sets of things! But those are the goals I aim for: the kind of good that feels good and actually makes the world a nicer place to be. Not just the kind that keeps you from getting yelled at.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the whole "YAY you colored your lion yellow" thing is to praise a child for actually NOTICING a lion is yellow and then being able to replicate that idea onto paper. Which is kind of a big thing. :)

Though I understand where you are coming from, and had many of the same problems in school myself. Socially I was a disaster. Was always "good", praised for having "good grades" and "being smart" and could tell and knew when other kids my age were doing things they weren't supposed to or wouldn't be approved of, and I didn't want to be involved. That kind of shut me out, but I still operate on the same basis so I guess that's just me.

I also agree that its best to do things that make you happy as long as you aren't harming another soul and are doing little things that slowly improve yourself and the world around you. I babysit for others, bring cookies to people 'just because', rent movies and bring soup to sick friends, etc. I still get run over, taken advantage of, and generally discarded when my help is not required, but have learned to not really care. As long as I'm doing what I feel is right and what people should do for each other, then its okay. Perhaps I need new friends. I don't know... lol I'm tired, and this rambled, sorry if it didn't make sense.

Bonnie said...

Yeah, but why do children need to be praised for noticing lions are yellow? Are they going to stop being able to see colors if someone doesn't praise them for it? Does coloring a lion purple on paper mean they really believe lions are purple? Why is it more desirable for a child to replicate reality on paper than it is for hir to imagine something non-real? Why should a child's joy in creating art have anything to do with earning praise from adults? Most importantly, in praising them for replicating reality, am I leading them to believe art is about doing things "correctly" rather than about self-expression? Those are all important questions to think about here.

Michael said...

Word up to all of this (both the post itself and your comment above). Very nicely said.

Vickie said...

I can relate to this post. I was the same way (and I am now, at 28, trying really hard to break out of the people-pleasing shackles). I really appreciate the fact that I found out about unschooling before I put my kids through the same process. Thanks for writing it so beautifully.

Anonymous said...

You have pretty much described my time in school here....Thank you for writing the words I've never been able to write :)

In school I was always "good", I did good work, and was painfully shy. Since coming out of school just over a year ago I've realised what a mess it made me, it gave me horrible anxiety about almost everything. I think I'm slowly learning what it's like to be me, and not the me school made me.

Thank you for your writig!
Phoebe xx