Maya’s mom makes seven common missteps trying to help Maya join in a friend’s birthday party. If you’ve made these mistakes yourself, fear not: we all have. We’ve all been there. Many parents are very quick to beat themselves up over things they’ve done wrong, and we hope you won’t do this. Instead, we think you should feel great that you’re taking the time to get it right—or as “right” as anything can be in the challenging, perplexing, exhilarating world of parenting.
That said, here are those seven missteps:
7 Things Maya’s Mom Could Have Done Better
- Late Arrival: Maya and her mom arrive late, right into the middle of a loud, crowded party where David’s friends have already established themselves. A late arrival gives Maya no chance to get comfortable, calmly, in her new surroundings—and perhaps make contact with a bridge friend—before the large-group social demands of the party begin.
- Forced Fun: Maya’s mom immediately announces that Maya should have fun. But fun is a subjective emotional experience, and everyone has fun differently. We shouldn’t assume that all kids experience noisemakers and balloon boxing as fun—and fun right away. (Note that this expectation to have fun in prescribed ways feels painful for many thousands of Quiet kids at summer camp.) Some kids almost always experience birthday parties as fun, but many others don’t; still others require a long warm-up period before the fun begins. Maya’s mom should let Maya know that she’s entitled to define her own version of what is fun and what is not.
- Coerced and Uncomfortable: Maya’s mom asks Maya to give David his present too quickly: “It’s his birthday, you’re his friend; you have to give him the present.” Maya isn’t comfortable enough yet for this kind of direct, public social interaction in an overstimulating environment, especially as coerced by her mom—which only adds to her discomfort.
- Impatience: Maya’s mom gets frustrated by Maya’s inhibitions and inadvertently shames her: “What are you afraid of, Maya?” As understandable and common as this reaction is in our harried and often selfless parenting lives, communicating impatience with Maya’s temperament is guaranteed to backfire. The message this frustration sends—and Maya probably understands it all too well—is: “Maya, why can’t you be a different kind of person? I want you to have a different personality!”
- Rush to Answer: When David says “Hi” to Maya and Maya’s mom immediately answers for her, “David, Happy Birthday,” she is jumping in too quickly to speak for Maya. Even if Maya doesn’t answer, it might be better to allow the silence to linger uncomfortably for a moment. Next time, or next year, Maya will decide to fill it herself. Even if the result is a brief, socially awkward moment, Maya’s mom might give her daughter time and space to challenge herself to answer (and thereby internalize the desire to respond), even if it’s an ever-so-quietly whispered, “Hi.” If Maya’s mom always rushes in to speak for her, we’ll never hear Maya.
- Unclear Expectations: Maya says repeatedly that she wants to go home, but her mom doesn’t respond. It’s perfectly reasonable for Maya’s mom to insist that she stay for a while. But she should:
- Validate Maya’s discomfort, which is her legitimate response to all the stimulation around her
- Give Maya a roadmap and a plan—something concrete for Maya to organize her anxieties around
- Reassure her that there is a definite end point, not too far away, to the social demands before her. For example, Maya’s mom might say, “I understand you’re not comfortable yet, but we have to stay for one hour out of respect to David and his mom; in the meantime let’s give the party a chance.” Or “We can go, but first let’s wish David a happy birthday, watch him blow out the candles, and then thank David’s mom. All you have to do is say happy birthday and thank you!” If Maya’s mom can present her with a few relatively easily achieved goals, she’ll give Maya some control over her environment. Maya can then declare victory and go home a little early.
- Contempt: When the magician calls Maya to volunteer and Maya refuses, her mom first tries to make her feel guilty: “David’s your friend; he’ll be disappointed.” And then, probably out of social embarrassment, she becomes contemptuous and punitive: “What’s wrong with you, Maya?” This scenario is as common as it is counterproductive: we’ve all been there! But it’s always a mistake. Patience and a little grace are the keys here. After Maya shakes her head no, Maya’s mom could simply let the moment pass silently—surely the magician will move on soon to another volunteer. She could put her hand on Maya’s back and simply be with her during this moment while it hurts and while it passes. She might also offer to help: for example, gently suggest that she accompany Maya to the podium if Maya wants to give it a try. But her mother’s contempt has zero chance of persuading Maya to join the magician in front of the group—and will make Maya feel badly about herself in the process.
10 Things Maya’s Mom Did Well
- Arrive Early: They arrive early. This gives Maya time and space to get comfortable in her new surroundings, allows Maya and her mom to talk together intimately at first, and allows them to meet their initial social obligations to David and Debbie away from the peering eyes of the crowd. Also, by being there early, Maya can watch her friends file in later and thereby find a bridge friend under a little less pressure than if her friends are already paired up at the party before she arrives.
- Don’t Rush: When Maya is reluctant to directly approach David to give him the present, Maya’s mom doesn’t coerce or rush her; rather, she tries to help ease Maya into participating at a slower tempo and in a manner Maya can handle right now: “As soon as he sees us, we’ll give him the present together.” Note that Maya’s mom doesn’t commandeer Maya’s social responsibility entirely but subtly urges Maya to share it in: “We’ll give him the present together.”
- Give Support: Maya’s mom kneels down to Maya’s size when they first arrive and Maya is most anxious. She speaks to Maya quietly and tenderly on her own level. This sends a distinct signal that Maya and her mom are in this together. Maya’s mom is not a judgmental task master here, but a gentle guide.
- Set Expectations: Maya’s mom gives her a clear roadmap about what to expect, what she must do (clap at the end of the birthday song), and what she doesn’t have to do (sing). This not only helps Maya to participate in small milestones she can easily accomplish but also helps contain her anxiety about what she may fear is an endless mountain of overwhelming challenges to climb. Note that by saying “there’s gonna be a lot of noise and laughing,” Maya’s mom is signaling that she understands Maya may feel uncomfortable amid all the noise and that her feelings are acceptable—not a problem to be ashamed of or one that needs to be “fixed.”
- Allow for an Easy Exit: At her first chance, Maya’s mom says to Debbie, “If I don’t get to see you later, thanks so much for inviting us,” which is a positive model for Maya of a graceful social extraction. Also, having preemptively offered her thanks, this liberates Maya’s mom to leave the party at the moment she deems most appropriate for Maya. She won’t have to wait around at the end for an opportune time to find and thank Debbie.
- Take Small Steps: As her friends arrive, Maya’s mom escorts her to a comfortable spot on the periphery and says, “Tell me who’s who.” Her mom is subtly reminding Maya that these are indeed her friends and is loosening Maya up by encouraging her to talk about her friends first to her mom separately and alone, which is more comfortable. This warms Maya up and starts to prepare her to make contact herself.
- Include a Bridge Friend: Next, Maya’s mom gestures for Sky to come over to Maya, further integrating Maya into the party and easing her gently out of the mother-daughter safety net. When Sky suggests that Maya show her the yellow wrapping paper in the other room, Maya’s mom anticipates that separating might be hard for Maya. She helps Sky give Maya courage by suggesting they hold hands and then enter the center of the party together. As is so often this case, this bridge friend successfully breaks the ice for Maya. Hand in hand with her friend, Maya can—literally—join the party and separate from her mother.
- Give Control: When Maya says she wants to go home because it’s too loud and the boys are hitting people with balloons (it’s overstimulating), Maya’s mom accepts her daughter’s complaints without contradiction or reproach but does two smart, skillful things instead. She allows Maya to take pride in the small victories already achieved, setting the stage for a virtuous cycle of additional victories later. And she gently cajoles (but doesn’t force) her to try to stick it out and stay a little longer. Sometimes by simply allowing for the hypothetical possibility of leaving, a parent increases the chances their child may want to stay. This gives Maya some control over her environment, the comfort of a definite end point, and the feeling that she has an empathic ally in her mom.
- Don’t Force: When Mario the magician calls Maya up to assist him, Maya’s mom gives the power to Maya to decide if she wants to give it a try. She doesn’t judge or try to coerce in any way. And most importantly, she provides a compromise solution that may ease Maya into being brave enough to take her place on stage—to participate, which is hard, but with her mom at her side, which makes it easier.
- Subtly Recede: When Maya succeeds in getting comfortable on stage with Mario, Maya’s mom wisely removes herself from the center of her daughter’s world: she quietly, slowly, and subtly recedes (psychologists call this “systematic fading”). So Maya’s victory is Maya’s alone. Just look at Maya’s smile as she leaves the stage.
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