When my son was five, he had a minor obsession with Michael Jackson. Not the music, per se, but with the way Michael Jackson danced. Something about all of that moonwalking and crotch grabbing and head snapping just captured his attention, and for a solid three months, all he wanted to do was watch old Michael Jackson videos on YouTube.But he didn’t just watch Billie Jean and Thriller and Bad – he studied them. He’d stare at Michael’s feet and hands until he’d memorized the movements, and suddenly, the kid was doing spins and shrugs and hip thrusts every time a song he liked came on the radio. And just like that, dancing became The Thing That He Was Good At.
When you’re a kid, it’s really important to have a thing that you’re good at. Lots of kids claim sports, or school, or art, as their things. But if you’re a boy, and you’re not particularly great at sports, and you’re not a particularly stellar student, and most of your interests revolve around fantasy worlds and video games, it can be really hard to find your thing. And so for my son, dancing was like a little miracle.
Whenever he felt down on himself for not getting picked to be on a team in PE, or when nobody at recess would pass the ball to him, I’d remind him that he was a really good dancer. Whenever he’d feel upset because it seemed that his big sister was good at everything, I’d point out to him that she has no rhythm whatsoever, and that he can dance like Michael Jackson. At weddings, or Bar Mitzvahs, or parties, he always got excited to get out on the dance floor, because he knew that he could do something special. Dancing was like a little confidence card that he kept in his back pocket, one that he could pull out whenever he needed a boost.
But the thing about his dancing is that it’s totally free form. There’s no routine, no flow, just a bunch of moves all thrown together, usually ending with him spinning on the floor in a kind of pseudo-breakdance thing. I’ve offered many times to enroll him in a hip hop class, but he has no interest – why, he reasons, should he take a dance class when he’s already so good at it? So while his moves are good – really, truly, good – the totality of it can seem, well, a little different.
Which brings me to PE the other day, where, apparently, they had a dance contest. According to my son, he got out front and center and did his thing, because, you know, dancing is his thing. But then, he waited until bedtime to tell me the rest of the story, when he announced that he needed to talk to me, and that it was important. So I told him to go ahead and talk.
“I think you’ve been lying to me,” he said, “about me being a good dancer. Because today at school when I danced, everyone laughed at me and said I was horrible.” And then he started to cry. Real, heart breaking tears. “Why,” he asked, “did you make me believe that I’m a good dancer when I’m not?”
Okay. So, you know how on American Idol those kids audition and they think they’re really, really good? Like, they think they’re the next Mariah Carey because their whole lives their parents have been telling them what amazing singers they are, and then they open their mouths for the judges and it’s like listening to cats dying a slow, tortured death? And you wonder what kind of parents would let their kids think that they’re amazing for that long without ever sitting them down and telling them the truth?
? Well, that’s how I felt. Which isn’t really fair, because a) he is a good dancer, even if it’s in a modern dance-y, free style, totally bizarre kind of way, and b) it’s not like I’ve been telling him that he should go out and audition to be a backup dancer in a Beyonce video. But it was just so sad. I mean, not only did he totally lose his confidence card, but he thought that I – the one person he’s supposed to be able to trust more than anyone else – had been lying to him for years.
I remember when my daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher once said that you shouldn’t give your children false praise. They know what they’re good at and what they aren’t, she explained, and you want them to be able to trust you. That comment has always stuck with me, and I’ve always been very mindful of that advice.
I’ve never told my son that he’s great at football, or that he’s an amazing speller. My daughter has a beautiful singing voice, but I’m quick to point out when she’s nasal or off-key, because then when I praise her, she’ll know it’s for real. And that’s exactly the response I gave to my son.
“I’ve never lied to you,” I insisted. “Can you ever think of a time when I told you that you were good at something that you’re not actually good at?” I told him that he is a good dancer, and reminded him of all of the people, other than me, who have praised him for it over the years. “So maybe your friends just don’t understand your kind of dancing,” I explained to him. “But that doesn’t make it bad. And it doesn’t make me a liar.”
I think he believed me. I really hope he did. Because lord knows he needs that confidence card in his back pocket, and right now, there just aren’t that many other places to find a new one. And come to think of it, maybe now he’ll reconsider taking that hip-hop class.