This Mental Health Monday, I’m taking a break from the guest posts to talk about something that shook me a few weeks ago.
We will return to the guest posts as soon as possible, but I thought this needed to be said.
As some of you may know, I’m a substitute teacher in my town’s public school system. I can be placed anywhere in any of the six schools, but I’ve been fortunate enough to become friends with three teachers who all work in the same class (yes, it’s a wealthy district) so they all request me when they’re out. So, I’ve become particularly close with that group of kiddos.
A few weeks ago, I was subbing for their assistant teacher, watching them in gym class during their gymnastics unit. They were split into groups, and each group went to a different station with different equipment. At one station, they learned to do different types of jumps over a big hurdle thing. They could do a split over it, jump with both their legs to one side, etc. In another one, they could try to make human pyramids. At a third, they could learn different types of rolls, flips, and jumps on a mat like cartwheels and herkies. There was even one where they could play with Pogo sticks and stilts. The teacher would take pictures of the kids and post them on the bulletin board. At the end of the period, they could go over to the board and sign their name under the photos of goals they’d completed.
I was so proud of my favorite group of kids. You shoulda seen how they can move! And they had so much fun, too. They were laughing and positively screeching with joy when they learned a new trick. Everyone clapped for each other– it seemed like a wonderfully positive environment.
Then, I noticed something while all the girls were signing their names on the board.
“Oh my God, I look so demented in this picture.”
“Oh my God no I do! Look at my face! I’m so demented.”
They weren’t signing their names under their new skills. They weren’t commenting on their amazing new feats. All the girls were crowding around the photos, checking themselves out, and comparing how bad they looked. They’re in fourth grade. That makes them about nine years old. And not one of them had a positive thing to say about the pictures their teacher had taken of them doing these awesome stunts. Where was all the positive self-esteem I thought I’d just seen? Also– demented? You look like you have dementia? What does that even mean?
I know where they learned this. This is not a reaction to being bullied, and it’s not from TV.
This is from the bad self-esteem of their older sisters and their mothers.
They ask to see the camera after every photo of them is taken, and then they ask for another because they think they look bad. I do it. My sister does it. My mom does it. If we don’t like a picture of ourselves, we say very similar things.
“Oh my God, don’t post that anywhere. I look like a potato.”
“Oh my God, I look like a pale chicken nugget. Take another one, please.”
These self-insults are all over the internet, too. It’s like, a trend on Twitter to call yourself a potato. I laugh every time I see one of those jokes, but how stupid does that sound? It’s a trend to call yourself a potato. We get this shit from the internet because we think it’s funny, and then the impressionable kiddos in our lives really think this is how they should react when they see a picture of themselves. Regardless of whether we actually have bad self-esteem or just say these things because it makes people laugh, those kids don’t understand that. These girls just say these things because they think it’s the norm (maybe it is) and eventually, they’ll start to believe it.
We need to be more mindful of how we talk about ourselves in front of children.
You know how, in an emergency on an airplane, you have to make sure your oxygen mask is working properly before you go help the people around you? The same goes for mental health, and self-esteem. If you’re a role model of any kind– a mother, sister, aunt, etc. (or the male equivalents) you have a responsibility to take care of yourself so the children who look up to you can successfully learn to do it, too. In an emergency on a plane, would you tell your kid that you weren’t sure if you were good enough to help them? Hell no– you’d try harder than you’d ever tried at anything in your entire life to help the kid you love. That kid deserves the same in this situation. It’s their future we’re talking about. It’s the self-image that they will carry with them throughout their whole lives. You should build your self-esteem for your own sake, but if you can’t, do it so the beautiful, smart little girl in your life can learn how valuable she is.