Better late than never
I peeked over my 16 year old son's shoulder while he was on the computer yesterday and saw that he was working on an assignment for his photography class. I saw that he had some of my pictures on the PowerPoint slide he was working on and asked him what the project was about. He said that they were working on composition and texture and that the photos on the screen were the ones that his teacher picked out that he liked. At first I was flattered when I saw that Keahi felt my photos were good enough to submit for his project. Then I started reading his write up and he was claiming that he took them himself! So I clarified and asked him what they were supposed to do for the project and he said that they were supposed to take their own pictures but he thought that mine were really good so he included them along with his in the initial bulk of photos he submitted. His teacher picked mine out as the best ones and so he ended up using mine for the final draft. Although I was really flattered that he and his teacher were impressed with my photos, I quickly warned Keahi that I was not OK with him doing that. His answer was that he already knew what the elements and techniques were, he could recognize them in photos and saw them in my photos, he knew that that was what the teacher was looking for, so he used mine- as if that would make it okay. I told him that recognizing and appreciating technical elements is one thing, applying them to your own photos and your own work is another. He argued that he was just giving the teacher what he knew he wanted and in that moment I knew I had a huge teaching opportunity beyond honesty and integrity in school work.
I explained to him that his teacher gave the class guidelines to help the class focus their attention on certain elements he was trying to teach. Each student is supposed to submit their interpretation, their vision, their understanding of those concepts- a visual essay to communicate their understanding of what they've learned. If the teacher was rigid in their demands for their assignment, everybody would turn in exactly the same images to meet his requirements. The whole assignment is designed to not only identify the element or technique taught, but to integrate it within yourself with enough understanding to be able to express it coherently through an image. And you probably won't get it perfectly on the first try. You'll probably have 10 photos of the same thing, but with minor adjustments- maybe a slightly different angle or better lighting. And you keep going until the image you produce looks and feels right, coherently and accurately reflecting YOUR view and understanding. Sounds a lot like life, doesn't it?
And I told him that this wasn't just about his photo project either. He should extrapolate that lesson to himself. He shouldn't devalue his personality, his talent, his capabilities and what he has to contribute. I've seen his photos and they're pretty good! He shouldn't have to copy, plagiarize or fake anything just to pass any part of himself as acceptable. I told him that in any scenario, never think that what you have to offer isn't good enough. Never try to appease others by giving them what you think they want, especially when you're offering something that is supposed to represent YOU.
He pointed out that out of all the photos, 4 out of the 6 that made the final cut were mine. Well, duh! I told him if he submitted all his original work, then his teacher would've liked and picked 6 out of 6 of HIS original work. By unnecessarily introducing comparison so early in his process, he's robbed himself of the satisfaction of acknowledging his own worth.
It made me tear when explaining this to him because I felt somewhat responsible for maybe leading him to think he wasn't good enough. I probably didn't praise him enough all these years. I probably criticized him too much. I probably doubted him more often than I trusted him. Maybe it was all those years of enforcing high expectations and yelling when he couldn't meet them that led him to feel like he needs to lie and present a facade just for others to think he's good enough. So I told him that he WAS good enough. He IS good enough. I told him that I've seen how good he is. And he needs to see that in himself. And in telling him that, I instantaneously saw myself in him.
All of those doubts and guilt I've carried as a mom- never quite feeling like I was doing enough, making myself feel bad for the mistakes I've made, and for not being a supermom. Raising my son was my assignment. Did I feel that he was reflection of my efforts as a mom? Hearing myself say all that to my son made some of that ickiness go away. I am good enough. I've seen how good I am. I need to see that in myself and stop comparing myself to other moms out there. We're both good enough. We always were.
I'm a little sad that it's taken us 16 years to get to this point, but I'm glad we had the opportunity to have this moment. Hopefully that 20 minute conversation was enough for both of us to start unlearning the 16 years of negative self-talk we've both been carrying on with ourselves. An opportunity for healing can never be too late.