Whose Humiliation?

We had arrived at my son's first gymnastics class. When I'd finally realized how passionately he wanted to take gymnastics, I'd put time and thought into finding the best situation that I could, and here we were. He was excited and ready to go. With his wonderful little body and his eagerness to adventure and use it in different ways, I was looking forward with pleasure to seeing him in this new milieu.

I was absolutely unprepared for what I saw. Compared with the other children in the group (who, I have to add, to salvage some motherly pride, were all older and more experienced), he was totally uncoordinated and incompetent. He couldn't do some of the simplest things. His lack of ability stood out like a sore thumb, and it was painful to watch.

A good part of my attention during that hour went to thinking about what to say to him at the end. I could point out how he was the youngest, how some of them had taken the class before, how quickly he was probably going to improve. I could mention all the things that he was good at, to take some of the sting out of this experience. Would I be able to do a good enough job to prop up his self-esteem until the time came (and I fervently hoped it would come soon) when he could hold up his own in the group?

At the end of the class, maybe it was the undevastated look on his face that warned me. In any case, I set aside all my well-prepared reassurances for the moment and simply asked him how it had gone. "Great!" he said. What?! Totally taken aback, I swallowed my speech and asked him to tell me more. He told me the parts that were the most fun, he told me how hard it was to figure out the cartwheels, he told me what the teachers did, he told me what he was best at.

I waited for more, but he was done. He had nothing to say about how terrible it feels to be incompetent, nothing about the humiliation of being the worst in the group, nothing about the pain of making mistakes in public.

I went home puzzling over the whole thing. Somewhere in that picture there had to be humiliation. I could feel it in my bones, taste it in my mouth. Why wasn't he showing any signs of it? It took me a while to realize that this was my humiliation I was feeling. It's certainly a feeling that I've known well and tried my very best to avoid. I remembered what it was like having to step up to bat in junior high gym class, knowing that I would strike out, and standing there in front of everyone as the inevitable happened. I thought of how hard I always tried to show myself as competent, of what pains I took in protecting myself from situations where I might make mistakes in public, or show myself up as a clumsy beginner.

If I had been out on that gym floor displaying that level of beginnership, I would have felt like dying of mortification. I would have needed all those reassurances and more to be able to consider the possibility of facing that group again the following week. My son, however, is a different person, and had a totally different experience.

And therein lies the lesson for me. We so often assume that anyone, and our children in particular, will feel the way we do in a situation, that we can't notice or accept when they are having quite a different experience. If their reactions do seem just the same, it's probably because we've trained them well in our own (somewhat less than totally hopeful, confident, relaxed) point of view on the world. And I guess that's the one part of this incident that I can claim with pride: I stopped myself from letting him know that he was supposed to feel humiliated in this kind of situation. By keeping my hurt-laden point of view out of it, he was free to have his own, much healthier, reaction.