Saturday, June 28, 2014

Don't Stifle Me Because I'm Beautiful (Another False Dilemma)

I'm probably going to get some flack for this, but I really think I need to put my thoughts out there.  Recently, I've been reading a LOT about how you shouldn't tell little girls that they're pretty.  Many of these articles I've read state that telling a little girl that she's pretty or beautiful leads them to focus on their physical appearance as their self-worth.  Some of these articles (a good number of them, actually), have gone so far as to imply that if you tell a little girl she's pretty, you're going to discourage her from pursuing a career in math or science.

I don't completely disagree with ANY of these articles, but I think most of the ideas behind them have some problems.  I'm not going to post any links to articles (just go type "don't tell a girl she's pretty" into Google, and you'll be set, friend), but here's a popular YouTube video (ad for Verizon) that's been appearing up on my Facebook newsfeed a lot over the past week.

Now, let me just start by saying that I do think that perhaps the parents in this video were just a little bit harsh to discourage "Samantha" or "Sam" the girl in the video (she has a gender-bending name--don't think I didn't catch that) from being curious or for getting her hands/dress/house dirty in the pursuit of curiosity.  But I also think it's a HUGE jump to say that telling a girl she's pretty is going to lead a little girl away from academic pursuits.

Perhaps it was because I was raised in a home where my parents taught me to use my brain.  My dad was a Science teacher, my mom an English teacher.  They both told my older sister and I that we were beautiful girls.  They bought us pretty dresses and mom put our hair in barrettes.  But they also encouraged us to be curious, to be avid readers and explorers, and to think for ourselves.  Sure, mom fussed at me sometimes for getting dirty or for messing up some of her stuff, but for the most part, my parents were great about letting my sister and I (and my brother too, but this is a post about girls) have freedom to figure things out for ourselves.

But here's the thing.  My sister grew up and became a rocket scientist.  I didn't.

And the reason I really think I need to address this issue is because I think people are in danger of over-correcting.  They see that girls are being told that they're pretty, and that seems to make little girls think that their appearance is more important than their intelligence.  So people start to think that the solution is to emphasize intellect and completely eliminate beauty.  And I think there's a lot of danger in this.

I think this whole MOVEMENT started when I was in middle school, or maybe a little bit before, back in the 1980s or 90s.  I started seeing PSAs then about how girls should be more interested in math and science, about how girls who loved math and science were really smart and smart is cool, about how pursuing math and science was the BEST THING EVER.  Only, I wasn't really good at science (it was fun, but not something I wanted to study the rest of my life--I much preferred science fiction!), and I was AWFUL at math.  I have always been awful at math.  Add to that the fact that my older sister was always brilliant in math and science, and that was just a recipe for low-self-esteem issues.  This was the opposite of what the PSAs intended, but I think other girls might have had similar reactions to them.

Because, believe it or not, 'Merica, there are other fields of academics besides math and science.  And the reason I didn't go into math and science wasn't because I was told I was pretty.  It was because I'm just not good at math and science.  And, contrary to what these over-correctors seem to be indicating, I'm NOT an idiotic bimbo who only thinks about my appearance because I didn't become an engineer.

And in case you think I'm being too harsh with the accusation above, let me just point out that in some of those articles I read, it was suggested that telling a girl she's pretty would lead girls away from math and science and into menial careers like childcare.

I am in childcare.

I happen to love it.

I happen to have gifts for it.

I happen to think I'm brilliant at it.

I happen to think I'm making a difference in the lives of children and families.

I happen to think that childcare is NOT a menial career.

And I didn't go into childcare because people told me I was a pretty little girl.

In fact, I wasn't even the prettiest of children.  My parents made me get my hair cut short because it was hard to take care of (I still have unruly hair, but I possess great magic known as a flat iron, now), so I looked like a boy.  I had glasses that were too big for me.  I was overweight.  So I didn't get the "pretty" compliment as much as a lot of other girls.  But let me tell you something else, I CRAVED it.  Even though I consider myself an attractive woman now, I still crave to be told I'm beautiful.

And if you wanna disagree with me about gender stereotypes or whatever, I'm just going to agree to disagree with you.  I just really think it's ingrained in a woman's brain to WANT to BE beautiful.  Please don't misunderstand what I said.  I didn't say women want to LOOK beautiful (although that's often the case, too).  I said they want to BE beautiful.  They want other people to recognize the beauty in them.  And that's the point I really want to make here, is that there's nothing wrong, absolutely NOTHING wrong with telling a little girl she's beautiful.  There's nothing wrong with telling a girl to twirl in her pretty dress for you.  There's nothing wrong with telling a girl that she has cute freckles on her button nose or big brown eyes or pretty curls.

The only time that there's anything wrong with that is if that's ALL you tell a little girl.  Because what we really have here is a false dilemma.  I think people, these over-correctors, are assuming that you have to EITHER tell a little girl that she's beautiful OR you have to tell a little girl she's smart.  People, people, people.  It's NOT an EITHER-OR situation.  It's a BOTH-AND.

Leonard Hofstadter knows what's up.

I'm going to use my sister as an example again.  She is a BEAUTIFUL woman who wears makeup and loves jewelry.  But, as I mentioned before, she's a rocket scientist, y'all.  She's an engineer.  She designs jet propulsion systems and does a lot of super-genius stuff and holds her own in a world that is male dominated.  She ALSO is a fantastic cook, a gardener, a more than adequate seamstress, a former wedding planner, and is a wonderful wife and a terrific mother to one adorable boy and three beautiful little girls--with another little girl on the way.  With so many little girls in her house, things get interesting.  And one of the most interesting things is that she once told me, back when she only had one little girl and one little boy, that I was never EVER to call her daughter "princess" or "diva."  She wanted to raise her kids up without excessive girliness.

The thing that happened though, with the second daughter, was that there was no way to KEEP this little lady from being girly.  She's six now, but I think my second niece had a Diva Princess party for her fourth birthday.  Why?  What changed in my sister?  Well, my sister is an amazing mom who has come to understand that kids have minds of their owns, and she wants to encourage them to think for themselves.

She also acknowledges VERY often how extremely intelligent my second niece is--seriously, the kid is a genius, and I'm not just biased.  My sister compliments her on her appearance (because my second niece will DEMAND to be told she's beautiful if you don't say it often enough) and on her intellect and fearless attitude.  My sister brags on all her kids, to others and to them, about ALL their talents and attributes.

And I personally watch three young ladies that have been in my care for almost 6 years.  I've watched them grow up, and they're still growing into beautiful, talented, intelligent young ladies.  They're all beautiful girls, and I tell them so, but I also make sure they know how proud I am of them for their intelligence and athletic ability.  These girls are soccer stars!  They're beautiful, intelligent soccer stars.  And there's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing wrong with TELLING them that.

It really frightens me a little to see where this MOVEMENT is headed.  I'm not saying it's wrong to encourage girls to study math or science or other academics.  I just think we're in danger of over-correction.  I think we're trying to push something, but at the risk of losing the other.  It's a balance, people.

And I know this world is just full of things that fight to destroy a woman's self-image.  The battle DOES begin at childhood.  But don't make the mistake of pushing a false dilemma.  Encourage your daughters (and your sons) that it's okay to be curious and get their hands dirty.  Encourage your children that they really are cute (I have also seen it's a double-standard, that apparently it's okay to tell a boy he's cute, but it's no longer appropriate to tell a girl she's pretty--what up with that?).  I think there's a way to balance letting a child know they're adorable without making their entire self-image revolve around their adorableness.

Basically, appreciate each child for who he or she is--both in your words and actions.  Don't push them towards science if science isn't their thing.  Don't push them away from fairy tale princesses if they are drawn towards fairy tale princesses.  There's more than one kind of beauty and intellect in this world.  If we push too hard for a child to be interested in something he or she is just not interested in, we're just as guilty as we would be if we pulled a child away from something that really did interest him or her.  And the tragedy is that we're going to miss out on who that child really is.

And chances are, that child is beautiful.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Loving Leadership

If you had told sixteen year old me that I’d one day be writing a blog about leadership, sixteen year old me would laugh at you and then eat seven cookies.  Because sixteen year old me really believed she’d only ever be a follower, and sixteen year old me really had no concept of what too many calories can do to a person.

Leadership is still something that really does not come naturally to me at all, but I’ve somehow found myself in a few leadership positions, lately.  It’s definitely been a learning experience.  God’s used these leading opportunities to teach me more about choosing love over fear.  …because apparently, when you put an insecure person like me in charge of something, well, there’s going to be some sort of struggle.

Struggles aren’t always bad.  They’re just something you have to work through.  I figure that’s why they’re called struggles.

Well, I’m no expert, but here are some of the things I’ve learned about leadership over the past several months:

1. Grace, grace, grace. 

Leadership takes grace.  Lots of grace.  If leadership were ice cream, it would need to be covered in chocolate grace sauce, caramel grace sauce, whipped grace cream, and a generous portion of rainbow grace sprinkles.  And also a big ol’ grace cherry on top.  Now I’m thinking about calories again….

But really, you can’t have leadership without tons and tons of grace.  I mean both from the leaders AND the followers AND from YOURSELF.  I’ve been a follower, and believe me, followers make mistakes.  I’ve been a leader, and BELIEVE me, leaders make mistakes.  Sometimes even the best leaders have to deal with people who think a leader has to be perfect.  But what’s worse is a leader who acts like he/she HAS to be perfect.  Don’t put unrealistic expectations on others.  Don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. 

Let me tell you about one of the most gracious people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.  My assistant teacher in my preschool class last year was amazing. 

Now, God has a sense of humor, and wouldn’t you know that he put the soft-spoken person (me) in a classroom with a hard of hearing person (my assistant teacher).  So sometimes I would ask her to do something or somehow give direction, and she wouldn’t hear me.  And I’m not going to lie.  I got MAD.  I do that sometimes.  I thought she was just ignoring me or just doing her own thing, because, as I might have mentioned before, I’m insecure. 

So when I got frustrated and confronted her about these times, she would just meekly say, “I’m sorry.  I really didn’t hear you.”  And then I’d feel like dirt, and I’d apologize.

And she forgave me.  Every time.  And on top of that she would make sure she knew how much she appreciated my leadership and friendship.  And THAT, my friends, is an example of a gracious follower, one who has the potential to be a great leader, too.  It’s also an example of a not so gracious leader—but, thank God, that leader (me) is learning.


This kind of goes along with the first one.  When I gave that example of a not so gracious leader (me), there was a redeeming factor.  Eventually.  It might have taken me awhile to get there, but I took notice of the times when I was just plain wrong, and I acknowledged them and sincerely apologized for them.  Because a good (or, in my case, a growing) leader is humble.

In the past few months, God’s taught me a lesson in this through the poor leadership choices of others.  I've been under leaders who would make mistakes and just flatly REFUSE to acknowledge any fault.  I think the rationale is that if a leader appears weak, then those under leadership will lose faith.  And there is that risk.  But leadership is about risk, sometimes, and it’s far better to admit a mistake and even to admit weakness than to stubbornly cling to an ideal that probably doesn’t exist.  In the case of the faulty leadership I was under, the “I’m the leader, I can’t be wrong” mentality only fostered a huge lack of trust in the leadership.

If a leader admits weakness, it can actually help to create a bond of unity between that leader and those he or she is leading.  If a leader can mess up, admit weakness, apologize, and get back up to try again, that creates a positive example people can follow.  If a leader is just going to be stubborn and pretend to be right all the time, that’s setting up a very different template for those under him or her to follow.  Leaders who act pridefully might just end up with a lot of prideful people underneath them.  They’re just following the leader, after all.

3. Servanthood

As humility went along with grace, servanthood goes along with humility.  The best leaders I’ve seen lead by example.  A leader should never expect one of those under him or her to do something that he or she wouldn’t do.  A leader cannot say, “I’m the leader.  I’m above such and such task,” and then go send someone else to do it. 

Now, delegation of duties is important.  I’m not saying that a leader shouldn’t give a menial or routine task to another person.  This can free the leader up to do something else that might require his or her attention.  But a leader can’t just act like he or she is too good for something that people under him or her are doing. 

I’ve been in churches where some of the ministers would go work in the nursery because there was a shortage of workers.  They were serving in a place that didn’t seem important, but their example was incredible.  By serving others in a simple way, they were blessing parents, other nursery workers, and showing the church that anyone can and should serve wherever needed. 

And in my own preschool classroom, I learned that as a leader, my job was to serve all the children in my class, all of their parents, and my assistant teacher.  My assistant and I had a few communication problems, for which she gave me much grace, but I eventually realized that part of my job was finding ways that I could serve her better.  I could give her clearer directions, ask her if she was comfortable doing the things I gave her to do, be open to suggestions, etc.  I was the lead teacher, but as the leader, my job was mainly to serve.  When I realized that, I think it helped me become a better teacher, and that preschool class was the best I’d had in four years of teaching.

4. Exhortation

Part of a leader’s job is to seek out strengths, as well as recognize weaknesses, in others.  Knowing strengths helps with delegation and teamwork and other matters, but it’s more important than that.  A leader who encourages others shows others that he or she notices them and appreciates them.   A leader who sees special qualities or talents in a person can express appreciation, which usually serves to encourage the person to use his or her special skills all the more.  A leader who sees a weak area can provide the support needed to build a person up.  A leader won’t let anyone else tear others down, either, weaknesses or no.

Sometimes a leader can just get a good sense of things and know what is best for his or her team.  Sometimes a leader needs to actually talk to the people under his or her guidance and get to know them.  Sometimes a leader needs to lovingly struggle through difficult situations with others.  If a leader is willing to get to know people and figure out how best to make them feel appreciated, then those who are following him or her are much more likely to be loyal.  That's going to lead to a better working situation for everyone.

5. Protection

A leader protects those under his or her care, at the cost of his or her own welfare.
A leader stands up for those who aren’t able or willing to stand up for themselves, sometimes at the risk of offending someone and risking his or her own position.
A leader fights for justice for those under his or her care.
A leader makes sure that everyone is heard.
A leader defends those who have been wronged.
Sometimes a leader even puts him or herself in bodily harm for the sake of protecting others.

And in my leadership experience, I certainly haven’t had to put myself at physical risk.  But I have had the opportunity to defend others.  And I’m glad that I can at least say that I did defend them in those opportunities. 

I’ve also been blessed to have others defend me under their leadership.  It’s always encouraging to know that someone has your back, no matter if you succeed or fail.

I am still learning how to be a good leader, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that leader I’d like to be.  I’m still much more comfortable in following, because following requires so much less responsibility.  The thing about following is that if something goes wrong, there’s usually someone in charge that you can blame the bulk of it on.  It's much harder being the one in charge.

But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunities to see that the struggle of leading others is usually worth it.  The sixteen year old me was wrong.  About the leadership AND the cookies. 

But I really could go for a grace sundae right now.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Looking Forward

It's probably been a mercy to the readers of my blog that I haven't had a computer this year, until now (I just obtained a new-to-me, gently used laptop that will hopefully serve me for a few years).  I have had a very interesting year, and I think it's been good that I haven't been able to blog every last detail of it to death.  I think, perhaps, it's been better that I've had a good long chance to process all that's happened to me this year before spilling it out in dozens of over-sharing blogs that would probably bore my readers to tears.

I'm not exactly sure what direction the blog is going, but I decided it was time to attempt a fresh start (I revamped the like?).  For now, here's a little update on things that have happened in the past six months or so, and how God's been faithfully teaching me and growing me.

I theme every year, as my long-time readers know, with words from the Biblical Christmas account.  2014's theme is "Do not be afraid."  I knew when I prayerfully chose that theme that it would be a year that would stretch and grow me, but I could never anticipate how much and in how many ways God would stretch and grow me.

I think the main thing that God has taught me this year is that there are two main ways that I can choose to respond to challenges, especially challenges regarding other people.  I can choose fear--which manifests itself through insecurity, anger, defensiveness, accusations, gossip, etc.  I can also choose love--which overlooks offenses, which seeks understanding, which honors another person over self, which rejoices in the truth.  In a lot of ways, I've found love to be the opposite, the antithesis of fear.  That's what my song of the year, "Love Alone is Worth the Fight" by Switchfoot is about.  It's been a great song to go along with my theme, a great reminder that love, though difficult, really is worth it.

I'm a terribly insecure person, and I'm far from perfect.  I definitely haven't always reacted lovingly this year.  But God has blessed me with a lot of situations that have given me opportunities to learn.  And I know I am learning--not because I'm really all that teachable, but because God is just gracious like that.

I could go into great detail about a lot of individual situations, but that would make this blog extremely long, and I'm trying to learn to be more concise.  That's hard for someone like me, especially when I haven't been able to write in a long time.  But to make this less tedious for everyone, I'm just going to list (and briefly?? explain) some of the things that have happened this year, some of the ways God's been working.

-I've had a few uncomfortable work situations, in multiple jobs, that have helped me realize that I'm not the only one with insecurities.  I'm tempted sometimes to believe I'm under attack, when in reality, the other person is just as defensive as I am--in some cases, even more so.  When other people, especially non-Christians, act or react out of fear, that gives me a unique opportunity to show love to them.  It isn't easy, especially when I believe, or even know, that I'm right.  Sometimes, showing love to someone means giving up our rights to be right.  It's particularly difficult for me because I am a brutally honest person, and I don't like it when I feel that truth is compromised.  But in choosing love over fear, we often have to surrender and trust God to uphold truth and justice.  After all, He has a lot better of an understanding of it than we do.

-I've had to let go of a lot of things.  Honestly, the first six months of this year have been some of the most freeing, healing times of my life.  I don't want to go into great detail in this, because while I don't mind sharing my own business, I don't want to invade the private lives of others.  I just finally was able to let go completely of a former relationship I had been holding onto for almost a decade.  The reason I held on to it was because I firmly believe I was supposed to, up until recently.  And there's probably still a lot of people who would disagree with that assessment, and that would have really hurt my feelings in the past, but I don't care anymore.  It wasn't their struggle.  It was mine.  And I'm exceedingly thankful for it.  There's a time and a season to gather stones, and there's a time to scatter them.  If I trusted God in the gathering, I'm also going to trust Him in the scattering.  That's really just all there is to it.  I'm just grateful that He's taken me on this journey, that He called me to cling to something for a season, that the season is over.  I'm grateful now that He's calling me to something else.  I don't know what I'm looking forward to--I'm just looking forward.

-One of my resolutions this year was to keep my eyes open for new opportunities.  I'm not at all a risk-taker or a thrill-seeker, but I at least wanted to keep an open mind when an opportunity presented itself  I don't know how faithful I've been in that, but there's at least one new scary-awesome thing I've taken on.  For the past three or four months, I've been singing with a small Christian rock band that I was asked to join.  It's not that big of a deal, but it's something that has taken me way out of my comfort zone.  Some of the music is way more hardcore than anything I've ever tried to sing before (I'm a church choir geek, not a rocker), and learning to sing and communicate with a group of very talented and experienced musicians has proved to be a blessing and a challenge.  It's still a new thing to me, and I've got a lot of insecurities to work through (don't I always?).  But I'm grateful for this new opportunity, and I'm anticipating what God's going to do through all of this.  At any rate, I've made a few new cool friends.

-I'm writing again.  Or, I'm trying to.  I've had so many ridiculous setbacks and part of me has wondered if God even wants me to keep pursuing these dreams.  I've been filling up notebooks with potential song lyrics.  I've got stories in my head that need to be written out.  Now that I have a computer again (thank God), that should help.  I just have to get motivated.  But I believe that even in these struggles, love alone is worth the fight.  I'm praying for grace to persevere.

-I'm learning how to accept blessings.  I didn't think this was a huge struggle for me, but I guess it really has been one all my life.  I used to just flatly refuse large monetary gifts, and, in so doing, inadvertently insult people.  I tend to feel really guilty over just about everything--so it was a lose-lose situation for me. If I accepted the gift, I felt guilty.  If I didn't accept the gift, I felt guilty.  And that's so not what the giver ever wanted me to feel.  They wanted me to be blessed; they wanted to feel blessed.  I'm slowly, slowly learning that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it."  It's not easy, but it's easier to have the attitude that "my stuff" isn't really my stuff.  It's God's.  It's harder for me to come to the attitude that "another person's stuff" isn't really that other person's stuff.  It's also God's.  It is ALL God's.  And I'm grateful that a lot of people have chosen to give to me lately, who have expressed to me that they're just stewards of what God possesses.  I'm learning that if I'm blessed beyond what I think I deserve or what I think I need, then the best thing I can do is just pass that blessing on to someone else.  It's not like it was ever really mine to begin with.  And if I can bless and be blessed by accepting a gift from someone and then pass a little of that blessing on, well, that's just a triple blessing right there.  Maybe even a quadruple blessing.  That's some awesome stuff right there.

-I'm learning that sometimes I need to stand up for myself, but not at all in the way people think.  And I might write a separate blog on this, because it's been a HUGE realization to me--it's one of those things in my life that made my whole outlook on things do a 180 turn.  All our lives, we get told that we should just be ourselves, right?  I have always believed that, and I've always had a pretty good idea of who I am.  So you'd think I wouldn't have much of a problem in just being myself.  Except, the wolves are often in sheep's clothing, and sometimes even the wolves are completely unaware of that they're not sheep.  I've had a lot of well-intentioned people tell me over the years that I need to be more assertive, that I need to speak up, that I need to stand up for myself.  They tell me I need to be more confident in who I am, that I need to be bolder, that I need to stop apologizing for little things, and WOMAN up.  So for years, I wondered what was wrong with me that I was still timid.  I wondered why I struggled so much with anxiety, with self-esteem, with self-confidence, etc.  People would quote from the Scripture, "God hasn't given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power..." and cause me to go on these huge guilt trips because I still had a spirit of fear and timidity, and very little spirit of power.  I'm not trying to say that the Scripture that was relevant for Paul and Timothy isn't relevant to us here and now, but I do think it's been misquoted and misapplied A LOT.  'Cause here's the thing.  I'm not fearless.  I'm not confident.  I'm not bold and brave and self-assured.  And I don't think any amount of prayer or Bible reading or Spiritual exercise is going to make me all those things that well-meaning people have said I have to be.  I can't speak for Paul because I'm not Paul.  I can't speak for Timothy because I'm not Timothy.  All I know is that, for me, Christianity, faith, life in general, it's all a process and it's all a struggle.  And being fearless doesn't mean I'm just going to pray a prayer or quote a Scripture and suddenly lose all my fear and doubt.  It means that I'm going to constantly strive, day by day, moment by moment, situation by situation, to choose love over fear.  And I've learned that when people tell me I have to be confident or self-assured or some other blasted thing that I JUST CAN'T BE, then I'm going to have to stand up for myself in a way that they never intended.  I'm going to have to assert my non-assertiveness, and unapologetically stand up for my apologetic nature.  I'm going to have to speak up for the fact that I'm often a quiet person.  It's a bit of a paradox, perhaps, but I think that's who I am.  I like myself.  I like who I am.  I know I've offended some people with this attitude, and that makes me sad, but I can't do much about how other people are going to respond to me.  I am only responsible for my own actions and reactions.  And yes, I have to show grace and love to people even in this, because I know most people really have every intention of being helpful and not harmful.  It's just that I can no longer just allow people to walk all over me about the fact that I let people walk all over me.  I really am just a weak fool who God is choosing to shame the strong and wise, and that's the greatest hope someone like me could ever have.

Well, that's been this year so far, more or less.  I'm really grateful for all that I've learned, for all that I'm still learning.  I wrote above that I'm not very teachable, but I think God's really working to make me more teachable.  And if that's the case, then it's true that nothing is impossible with God, 'cause I'm a hot mess, y'all. 

But He's good.  He's patient.  He's faithful.  And this year has been an incredible journey.  It's only about halfway over, too.  So, yeah.  I'm looking forward.