"Mommy, do I suck?"
“Ng,” my younger sister nudged me. “Why is your son so bratty tonight?”
There he was, slumped across us on the restaurant table: arms crossed, brows furrowed, lips pouting, still extremely adorable.
I told her that he had actually just come from a really good mood. We watched a movie that he enjoyed (“except for the scary parts!”) and afterwards, he ran around the mall pretending to be the Black Power Ranger. Everything was going well, until we sat down at a coffee shop. I'd given him some paper and pens, and —
“Mommy, do I suck?”
He was drawing a rocket ship and a Minecraft Creeper and, just now, when I asked him to remind me what it was he was drawing again, he said, “Mine look horrible.”
My sister gasped then pointed at me accusingly: “DOMINANT INSECURE GENE! He got that from you!”
(“Excuse me, you also!” “Yeah, but I didn’t give birth to him!” Gee. Belated Happy Siblings' Day to you, too.)
So when my son asked, “Mommy, do I suck?” I didn’t even have to look at him or his work to say,
“What? Of course not!”
Because what kind of mother would tell her child that his drawings are bad! What kind, I tell you! (Also, I thought his drawings were cool???)
Here’s an excerpt from an old, old blog entry, it isn’t even on this site.
Growing up “so smart!” there was kind of no other choice but to kick ass, and kick ass constantly. The flip side, of course, being, that the moment I didn’t kick ass, I had to hide my own in shame. Of course I didn’t kick ass every time. Of course they were heavy blows to my ego. Of course I learned to eat my feelings. And that would usually be the end of any attempt. You didn’t like my work? I’m so useless I’m so sorry I’ll never do this again I promise omg. :(
(Oh. So that’s where the being hard on myself thing came from.)
It took me a while to realize that sucking at something wasn’t the end of the process, but the beginning.
Or like Jake the Dog says:
“Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.”
(24-year-old me made such good sense, that 26-year-old me totally went back and re-read the entire entry, "Oh yeah, good point!"-ing my way down because oops these are things I'd super forgotten.)
Also: a wise person — and by wise person, I mean one of my favorite online entrepreneurs and actual humans, Regina Anaejionu — once told me:
“I think to be really good at something, you have to be prolific at it for a period of time. You wanna be a writer, you have to write a lot. Or if you wanna do videos, then you make a lot of videos. And you have to do it a lot because there's going to be a period in the beginning... where you're gonna suck at it. And you just need to keep going to get through that.”
She also wrote an entry on this called: Yeah, you suck at that. Which is perfect for being awesome at it.
If you want to get good at something, do it prolifically.
If you want to be great at something, produce it prolifically and don’t get discouraged by the fact that right now, your output sucks.
I needed to read these again. I'm a fan of making mistakes (!), but I've found myself more and more scared of making them lately, because I felt I literally couldn't afford them. (Tuition is expensive!)
Reminder: sucking at something is, one, totally okay. And two, part of the process.
So wait a minute. Was I doing my son a disservice by telling him he didn’t suck?
But So Wait a Minute, The Second: does this mean I have to tell my son he does suck?
Because first of all, I honestly didn't think he did. However five-year-old-y those drawings look, they are cross my heart better than anything I could come up with myself.
But I could also see what he was seeing: that his drawings didn't look like what he wanted them to look like. Baby boy had high standards, and high standards he didn't feel he was meeting.
Man, I get that.
It’s one thing to pep talk myself. It’s another to pep talk this little child who is feeling bad and insecure and looking for reassurance but is also someone I need to raise into a capable and resilient person but also needs love because this is a vulnerable moment and a vulnerable question help.
He was disappointed in himself and already felt his work was subpar, so this was also kind of a lose-lose situation. Tell him he doesn’t suck, and invalidate how he’s feeling. Tell him he does suck and crush his little five-year-old heart and dreams maybe forever and also be An Awful Mother.
He asked me if he sucked many times that night and the next day, further solidifying my theory that I mitosis’d my baby out of me. That also gave me a chance to refine my answers, from
“What, of course not!”
“What do you mean?” (aka totally evading)
to what I finally came up with.
So when he asked again, "Mommy, do I suck?"
I said, “Suck at what?”
“Drawing this rocket ship in 3D.”
“I know. We’re the same. I feel bad when I suck at something I try, too. But you enjoy drawing, right?”
“Okay, so how about this. Instead of saying, ‘I suck at drawing this rocket ship in 3D,’ you say: ‘I’m still learning to draw this rocket ship in 3D?’”
My child responded thusly:
So I persisted:
“Everybody who’s learning something new starts by sucking. But the ones who are good at what they do, do you know how they became good?”
“By practicing. A lot! They just kept doing it, and doing it, and doing it. And every time they did something, they’d get a little better at it, and a little better, and a little better. So maybe you don’t feel like your drawings look 3D now, and that’s okay. You’re still learning! You’ve just started! That’s part of it. The more you draw, the more you’ll learn how to make things look 3D, as long as you keep trying.”
He didn’t reply; I probably wouldn't have, too. He just gave me a hug and went in for a cuddle.
But it wasn't long before I saw him quietly pick up a pen and a piece of paper, and try to figure out how to draw a 3D ball.
Though he did just ask again if he sucks.
He’s totally my son.