What an uncomfortable feeling to become aware that we are disappointed with or ashamed of our child, even momentarily. I knew a mom who had one child who was bright, attractive, and well-liked. Her other daughter, however, was awkward and overweight, and was frequently teased as a result. This mother’s disappointment in this child was at times thinly veiled, as she tried many different “treatments” to help her child lose weight or be more attractive.
If we are honest, we have likely all had moments of feeling dissatisfied, embarrassed, or ashamed of our kids. The prick of irritation that she isn’t as motivated or talented as some of her peers, the stomach-flipping flash of shame and anger when we hear that he wasn’t selected for the team.
What Part of Ourselves Are We Ashamed Of?
Usually, those aspects of our children that we find difficult to like are akin to those aspects of ourselves that we have longed despised. Knowing this can open the door to greater self-acceptance and compassion, which in turn can reduce those uncomfortable feelings about our kids.
Given the richness of this psychological situation, it isn’t surprising that that are many fairy tales about feeling embarrassed or disappointed by one’s child. The Slavic fairy tale “The Little Singing Frog” is one particularly charming version.
The Little Singing Frog
There was once a poor laborer and his wife who had no children. Every day the woman would sigh and say: “If only we had a child!” Then the man would sigh, too, and say: “It would be pleasant to have a little daughter, wouldn’t it?” At last they went on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine and there they prayed God to give them a child. “Any kind of a child!” the woman prayed. “I’d be thankful for a child of our own even if it were a frog!”
God heard their prayer and sent them a little daughter—not a little girl daughter, however, but a little frog daughter. They loved their little frog child dearly and played with her and laughed and clapped their hands as they watched her hopping about the house. But when the neighbors came in and whispered: “Why, that child of theirs is nothing but a frog!” they were ashamed and they decided that when people were about they had better keep their child hidden in a closet.
The parents loved their daughter, but were ashamed of her. The story tells us that because she was confined to the closet, she grew up without any friends. She went with her father to work in the fields every day, and while there, she would climb a tree and sing. One day, the czar’s son rode by and was stuck by the lovely singing. He demanded to know where the maiden was with the beautiful voice.
But the old man who, as I told you before, was ashamed of his frog daughter before strangers, at first pretended not to hear and then, when the young Prince repeated his question, answered gruffly: “There’s no one singing!” But the next day at the same hour when the Prince was again riding by he heard the same sweet voice and he stopped again and listened. “Surely, old man,” he said, “there is some one singing! It is a lovely girl, I know it is! Why, if I could find her, I’d be willing to marry her at once and take her home to my father, the Tsar!” “Don’t be rash, young man,” the laborer said. “I mean what I say!” the Prince declared. “I’d marry her in a minute!” “Are you sure you would?” “Yes, I’m sure!” “Very well, then, we’ll see.” The old man looked up into the tree and called: “Come down, Little Singing Frog! A Prince wants to marry you!” So the little frog girl hopped down from among the branches and stood before the Prince. “She’s my own daughter,” the laborer said, “even if she does look like a frog.”
This story of parental shame ends happily. The prince agrees to marry the little singing frog, who it turns out, knows how to transform herself into a beautiful maiden.
I once worked with a young woman whom I’ll call Maria. Maria’s parents had immigrated to the United States from Mexico. They worked as live-in staff for a wealthy family, and therefore lived in an affluent community where Maria attended the first-rate public school. Maria was academically talented. When it came time to apply for college, Maria was in the top of her class and guidance counselors were steering her toward the most prestigious schools.
Instead of feeling proud of their daughter, Maria’s academic aspirations were a source of worry for her parents. They were afraid she was shooting too high, and would be disappointed and hurt. The shame they felt about their low social status relative to most of the other people in the town got projected onto Maria to an extent. Like the laborer who didn’t believe the prince would really want to marry his daughter, Maria’s parents had difficulty believing that she could really be welcomed into her own “royal” future.
Maria’s fate and that of the singing frog overlapped in other ways as well. Having all of her life been exposed to her parents’ self-consciousness and lowered expectations for her, Maria found that could tend to sell herself short. In professional situations and dating relationships, her first impulse was often to assume she wasn’t good enough. Like the frog, however, her talents couldn’t remain hidden for long, and when the opportunity did present itself, she was able to reach inside of herself and reveal her beauty.
If we find ourselves ashamed of our children, it can be useful to ask what part of ourselves we have rejected as ugly or deficient. This can be an invitation to heal our own deep wounds around shame and inadequacy.
The frog girl’s eventual happy ending may be explained, in part, by the fact that her parents loved her and cared for her, even though they were ashamed of her – and of themselves. There is a Grimm’s fairy tale that begins in a similar manner that does not have quite such a happy ending that I will write about next time.