My daughter has always been a bit behind when it comes to gross motor development. She was a late walker (nearly 18 months), she has long been the only kid in her tot’s gymnastics class who can’t do a somersault, and I swear she only recently (just shy of three years old) figured out how to actually get her feet off the ground when jumping.
None of these examples are reason for concern. She’s where she should be, and always has been; she just happens to fall on the later end of the gross motor development spectrum.Which is why it has been so exciting for me to watch her develop a love for climbing recently.
I’m not entirely sure what triggered this newfound hobby of hers, but more and more she has been seeking out opportunities to climb just about everything in sight. And she’s good at it — I think partially because there is an element of problem solving to climbing, which is something she’s always excelled at.
I love watching her little brain work through what step to take next, and how to get to where she’s going. I love that even though she is extremely cautious (far more so than her climbing peers), she’s still willing to take risks with this — going a little higher with each new adventure.
Which brings us to a long layover we recently had at the Seattle Airport. Once there, I immediately sought out the kid’s play land I had been told about that had various structures to play on and climb. I watched as my daughter navigated her way up one of them, and when she made it to the top, I triumphantly cheered — just as I did the next five times she climbed it.
When another family entered with their little boy, and my girl immediately ran to his side, I thought to myself how amazing it is to watch kids make such fast friends. I made polite small talk with his parents — finding out he was just a few months older than my daughter — and then we mostly just sat silently and watched the kids play.
After a little while, my daughter returned to that climbing structure she had been so fascinated with earlier, and up she went. Her new buddy watched her, and then tried to follow in her footsteps, but he just couldn’t. In his defense, my girl is tall and had a few inches on him. But as she sat at the top trying to coach him up (seriously, it was adorable) I noticed the dynamic shifting. He was growing more and more distressed with each failed attempt, and she was growing more and more anxious to help her friend.
His parents handled the situation much as I would have — sitting back and encouraging him to keep trying, but not jumping up to offer the assist; they wanted him to figure it out himself.
Eventually though, my girl could not handle her friend’s growing sadness. She jumped down and actually tried to help him, awkwardly giving him boosts that probably weren’t helpful at all, but … she was trying.
That was when he sat down and burst into full blown tears. I watched as my daughter tried to comfort him, and then … I watched as she pretended she couldn’t climb the structure she had just climbed multiple times in a row.
That’s right. She went to it, faked some grunts, and failed attempts (even hurling herself to the ground), and then convinced her buddy they should go play on something else.
She didn’t attempt any climbing the rest of the time we were in that play area.
Watching this scene go down, I felt such a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I was proud of my daughter’s empathy and her desire to make someone else feel better. But on the other, I was upset that she felt as though the only way to accomplish that was to downplay her own abilities.
In my head, I realized that maybe I was overthinking the situation. And even though part of me wanted to chastise her a bit with, “Come on, you know how to do this,” I kept my mouth shut. Mostly because I knew I would look like a jerk to the other kid’s parents if I pushed my child to once more do what theirs had been so upset about not being able to do.
But … I couldn’t help that voice in my head saying, This is when it starts. This is when she starts down-playing her own abilities in order to please and impress other people — or worse, just to fit in.
I think most women could recall a time in our past when we were guilty of this, or when we knew of a friend who was. I personally went all through high school talking about how terrible I was at math. But you know what? I excelled in chemistry, even in college; so how terrible at math could I really have been?
I had friends who were naturally athletic, but who talked about not wanting to play certain sports because boys weren’t interested in girls who were athletes. And even today, as an adult, I am constantly hearing successful women talk about how their success hinders them in the dating world.
I never quite know what to do with that.
There is, after all, plenty of research to back up the idea that girls and women may be underplaying their abilities — perhaps more so when in the presence of boys. Girls at single-sex schools far outperform those at co-ed schools. Women make up 60% of master’s level graduates, but are only represented at 25% in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, and only account for 15% of executive leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies. Then there’s the fact that the sports dropout rate is six times higher for girls than boys, with only one-quarter of girls being engaged in regular physical activity by their senior year of high school (compared to half of boys).
All of this research is frightening to me as the mother of a daughter. But what is perhaps even more disheartening is the evidence that as a society — we are continually encouraging girls and women to downplay their abilities.
So was my little girl trying to be a good friend that day at the airport play land, or was she already picking up on the fact that she might have an easier time making friends with a boy if she didn’t let on to being able to do something he couldn’t?
I can’t be certain.
But I also can’t help the feeling that if the roles had been reversed, that little boy wouldn’t have responded to my daughter’s tears by pretending that he, too, was incapable.
And that’s the part that gets me.