My kids keep telling me to stop embarrassing them.
There are three general categories of embarrassing incidents about which they complain:
1) Being friendly and talking to “everyone” (e.g. “anyone” in public who is not in our immediate family);
2) Singing loudly in public places, like the local Rec Center parking lot, for no apparent reason;
3) Shouting “I LOVE YOU, HONEY” when I drop them off at school.
Okay, the last one I have to own. That is embarrassing. And it may have been on purpose to embarrass them. Embarrassing one’s children is not only a family rite of passage, it is an important life lesson: I learned at a young age not to let other people’s choices embarrass me. I am responsible only for my own.
As my father’s daughter, I learned this as a matter of survival. My father, an anti-smoking zealot since the 1950’s (e.g. before it was cool), would bring a squirt gun or handheld fan with him to public places — movie theater, sports venue, restaurant, party. Recall, if you can, the typical smoker’s posture: wrist tilted back, cancer-stick burning between second and third fingers, smoke spiraling away from their own face. A flick of the fan’s button blew secondhand smoke back into the offending smoker’s face. That seemed fair.
The squirt gun, however, was a different level of combat. Its purpose was to extinguish a burning cigarette from a distance. Squirt guns having notoriously unreliable aim, my father’s life was in more immediate danger from the smoker than from the smoke.
I recall the defining moment in my adolescence when I had an epiphany about not being embarrassed by my parents. At my 8th grade graduation, as I lined up with one hundred fourteen-year-olds to enter the auditorium, my father approached me and said in his loudest voice for all to hear, “LAURA, DON’T WORRY. I WON’T EMBARRASS YOU. I PROMISE, NO MATTER WHAT, LAURA DIAMOND, EMBARRASSING YOU WOULD BE THE LAST THING I WOULD DO.” He grinned his I-crack-myself-up grin, I shook my head and smiled, and I realized in that moment that he could not embarrass me. He was him. I was me. (It couldn’t have hurt that he was, and is, a wonderful father.)
Still, I have promised my kids that I would stop the intentional embarrassments — the “I love you’s” in front of school are now always private, quiet affairs.
But there will remain embarrassments, the ones that are expressions of who I am — the spontaneous singing, the talking to strangers. When my kids ask me to stop these, I now borrow a response I heard my friend tell his child: “I will always be who I am, and I am not going to change that.”
I gotta be me. And I hope they learn the freedom to be who they are.
I think it’s working. My younger son offered this a few days ago: “I think it’s better to be unique than to be like everyone else.”
Full heart balloons of YES! floated through my body, out my ears, through the open windows and high above the house, popping in the spring sky, raining down a resounding prayer of “please always feel this way.”
I’m not saying this is an easy attitude to achieve or maintain, as it runs contrary to the adolescent condition. But for better or worse, my kids will get plenty of practice not taking personally my embarrassing ways. I feel a song coming on…