"I want you to think of a river, filled with sand and rocks, with shallow, splashing, fast-moving water, as well as deeper, calmer pools. Do you have it in your mind's eye?"
"Now imagine standing on the edge of the river, and throw a small pebble in. Watch it. Does it stay right where you throw it, or does it move? Does it start to flow down the river? Get pushed around? If you walked through the river to where the pebble is, would your feet displace it? Kick it up and move it?
What feels stronger to you: the river or the rock?"
"The river," she answered, as most of us would.
"To the pebble, the river is stronger. But look again at the river. Do you see any big rocks, or boulders that are buried in the mud and stick up out of the water? Is the water moving them?"
"No, the water moves around them. They don't move at all. They are too big."
"Yes, exactly. So, in the river of your life, with everyone rushing around you attempting to influence you, to move you and push you around, do you feel like the little rock, or the big rock?"
My 11-year-old daughter looked up at me, the tears still evident on her face. "I don't know how to become the big rock, Mom."
Middle school is hard.
We were deep in an emotional conversation about her frustrations with a girl at school, a sometimes friend, sometimes enemy. The girl is a bad influence on her, she said. She had been lying to me, sneaking off to a corner store to buy candy after she had been told not to. She felt like a horrible person, and she was angry someone else had "made her" make bad decisions, upset she was influenced so heavily by this girl. She never wanted to see her or talk to her again. But they had mutual friends, and they were in the same class. She did not know what to do.
I held her, crying with her. This situation was not that serious, I knew. Sneaking off to buy candy was not the worst thing I could think of. But it did not take much for my mind to draw connections, and those connections terrified me. Soon, it would not be candy. It would be behavior that could cause harm, to herself and others; behavior that could cause repercussions that ripple through the course of a life.
I felt the fear of that. And I knew now was the time to set the foundation, to instill the lessons that would help her navigate the minefield of her teenage years.
Now was the time to teach her how to be the big rock.
That day, we talked about boundaries, about how to establish them and communicate them in healthy ways. We talked about integrity and the feeling in our bodies when we act in ways that break trust, that we know are wrong. We talked about personal responsibility and how nobody had "made her" do anything; it was a choice, and it was her choice. We talked about the power of knowing this. We talked about how common this is, how it is something everyone faces. We talked about the times I had faced this, and the times I had been the small rock. We talked, and we talked, and we talked.
Metaphors are powerful in parenting. They help draw pictures in your child's mind to illustrate your points. They also help create a framework you can refer to after teaching a concept, a way to quickly and easily check back into the conversation at a later time.
Months later, we are still talking about the river and the rock. At the dinner table, we check in about our days.
"My friend asked a boy which one of us is prettier, and he said her," she tells me, launching a dramatic tale of middle school social politics, full of twists and turns, of he said and she said.
"And what did you do?" I ask.
"I went around and I asked every other person in our class who was cuter, and they all said I was, and . . ." she continued, her face animated with her tale of victory.
"So, what do you think? Was that you being a small rock, or big rock?" I asked.
Recognition dawned on her face, understanding mixed with resignation. "Small rock?"
"Yeah, I think so, too. What do you think a big rock would do?"
She sighed the way only a preteen can.
"Tell her it hurt my feelings when she asked who was prettier, and it doesn't matter who is prettier, and it's not okay for a friend to act like that."
"Exactly." I breathed a little deeper.
She gets it.
Choosing to be the big rock is the more difficult path. It Is hard to dig deep in the mud and stand your ground against the river of peer pressure. It is easier to go the way of the pebble.
She will not always pick the right path. She will not always make the right choice, but she understands the difference, and she knows she has a choice. Knowing that is her power. It is the place from which confidence and boundaries grow.
"So what do you think you'll do next time?" I ask.
"Well, what I'd like to do is march right up to her and tell her that she's a horrible person and that she can't talk to me like that . . . and that I am prettier, anyway," she said.
"And what size rock would that be?" I asked, laughing.
"Maybe a medium one?" she replied, with a twinkle in her eye. "But, hey, at least I'm getting bigger."