The Flip Side of a Child’s Weakness

The Flip Side of a Child’s Weakness

When my daughter was three, someone told me during a toddler art class that I needed to “toughen her up” because she was too sensitive and “would have a rough life ahead.” When my daughter and I got home, I looked into my child’s big brown eyes that held so much promise and declared, “I will never ever ‘toughen you up.’ Mark my words: someday that tender heart inside you will be your gift.”

It wasn’t until I was cleaning out my daughter’s backpack six years later that I received confirmation for nurturing my child’s tender heart rather than trying to change it.

At the bottom of her book bag there was a speech she had written and recited to her class before being voted class president in a mock election.

My daughter wrote:

“I would very much like to be your class president. I am hard working. I am very kind. I take care of the animals and the plants. I have self-control. I am very brave and honest. I am caring and a little curious. I am very smart and fun. I make a good leader. I care about other people. I am so exided to be one of the class presitents. Please vote for me.”

I cried as I held that paper.

I cried for every little boy whose parents are told he is too rambunctious, too inquisitive, too loud.

I cried for every little girl whose parents are told her head is in the clouds, that she is a daydreamer and too much of a free spirit.

I cried for every little boy whose parents are told he is too small, too weak, and too timid to ever play the game.

I cried for every little girl whose parents are told she is too clumsy, too uncoordinated, too slow to ever succeed.

I cried for the mother who was told her child needed to be toughened up and for every year that mother waited for the moment she would know she had done the right thing by nurturing that tender heart.

The moment was now.

There was cause for celebration. Not because I had been “right.” Oh no, there was something much more miraculous to celebrate.

In the act of protecting, nurturing, and encouraging that overly sensitive heart at age three, my child’s gift had blossomed.

And what was more important than the fact the world could see and appreciate her gift was the fact that she could see it herself.

I shudder to think if I had tried to change her, mold her into something she was not. What would I have destroyed in my beautiful child?

I was certain she could have never written these words, her purpose, her future in clear legible letters.

Herein lies the flip side to an overly sensitive heart—and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.

Do your children have any “weaknesses” that with time and nurturing could become strengths? How might your life be different if someone had given you this gift?

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Rachel Stafford

Rachel Macy Stafford is a certified special education teacher with a Master’s Degree in education and ten years experience. She shares her journey to let go of daily distraction and grasp what really matters on her blog Hands Free Mama and on Facebook at The Hands Free Revolution.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Christi G

    It made me so sad to read about the parents being asked to ‘toughen
    up’ the little girl. I am the mommy of a beautiful blond haired blue
    eyed daughter who does not like, as she puts it, “girl clothes”. Certain
    people in my family refuse to accept her as she is, and have gone as
    far as to inform her that God did not intend her to be the way she is,
    and that if he wanted her to wear boy clothes, he would have given her
    “boy parts”.

    As her parents, we do not try to change her or mold
    her into someone she is not, and I take issue with those who do. She is
    kind, highly intelligent, inquisitive, well behaved, and would bend
    over backwards to help anyone, whether it’s someone she loves or a
    stranger. This is the child who loves without abandon or reserve. If
    only we could all be that way. This is the child who, rather than me
    selling the toy kitchen she has outgrown, instead asked me to give it to
    a child who doesn’t have any toys. When I located a family who was in
    need, and told her that they could clean it up when they got it home,
    she refused to let it go before she made it sparkling clean from top to
    bottom.

    I’m proud and blessed to have her as my daughter, and if
    her only “fault” is that she dresses a little differently than other
    girls, I’d say she’s going to be ok. As someone above commented, “Our
    job as parents is not to mold our
    children to the ways others think they should be, but instead to nurture
    their spirit and their potential.”

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  2. Christi G

    It made me so sad to read about the parents being asked to ‘toughen up’ the little girl. I am the mommy of a beautiful blond haired blue eyed daughter who does not like, as she puts it, “girl clothes”. Certain people in my family refuse to accept her as she is, and have gone as far as to inform her that God did not intend her to be the way she is, and that if he wanted her to wear boy clothes, he would have given her “boy parts”.

    As her parents, we do not try to change her or mold her into someone she is not, and I take issue with those who do. She is kind, highly intelligent, inquisitive, well behaved, and would bend over backwards to help anyone, whether it’s someone she loves or a stranger. This is the child who loves without abandon or reserve. If only we could all be that way. This is the child who, rather than me selling the toy kitchen she has outgrown, instead asked me to give it to a child who doesn’t have any toys. When I located a family who was in need, and told her that they could clean it up when they got it home, she refused to let it go before she made it sparkling clean from top to bottom.

    I’m proud and blessed to have her as my daughter, and if her only “fault” is that she dresses a little differently than other girls, I’d say she’s going to be ok. As someone above commented, “Our job as parents is not to mold our children to the ways others think they should be, but instead to nurture their spirit and their potential.”

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  3. Katharine Louw

    Hi Rachel, I just wanted to congratulate you on your blogs – they are brilliant. I loved the Hurry up one but this one particularly rings true for me. I remember as a kid being told that I was a
    wuss and being emotive wouldn’t get me anywhere – you cry to easily. My parents would get angry with me. Well, at 36 I still cry easily as I feel peoples pain and sadness – when
    the news comes on I usually turn it off, I cry in movies and stop to
    help older people etc. I’ve had testings proving that I should be working in the care profession because of my empathy levels being so high. What you did for your daughter was a great gift. You embraced her soul. xx

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  4. Julie Jones

    I told my child and the many people that I have worked with over the years that finding a balance in your ‘sensitivity’ is key, yet being sensitive is actually a wonderful quality. Not only are the ‘sensitive’ people the ones that often hurt the most easily for themselves, but they are they ones who ‘hurt’ the most easily for others when others are hurt. They are caring, wonderful people who are the best ones to call when you are facing a crisis and need some support. Our culture seems to be very, very negative about that quality and it is almost always seen as a bad thing – “to be sensitive.” Yay for those that are sensitive…and do try to not let their own sensitivity interfere with their wonderful qualities of being kind and helpful to others.

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  5. James Graham

    if you are voted team captain, and you pick second, pick the the tail end of the pack. your gonna get em anyway, and when you make them feel good they will suprise you.

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    • Why didn’t I think of this earlier? James, this is brilliant. Brilliant. I’m going to Tweet it.

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  6. christina

    I think this article is a bunch of bull. I think the letter found is charming and sweet, she sounds like a nice little girl. However, being overly sensitive is a PROBLEM! I bet the girl DOES end up having a rough road if she is in fact overly sensitive. The mom never explains who told her to mind her child, or the circumstances surrounding the chastisement, and I think those are vital points! Moreover, how does this letter prove that the mom was right in neglecting to address her daughter’s over-sensitivity? Particularly in adult relationships, I feel like over-sensitivity is an issue. It makes it hard to debate on controversial issues when the parties involved are too emotional to handle the discussion. Lastly, just because there is a chance that a weakness may become a strength, that is no reason to overlook it, or to call it something other than what it is – a weakness. “I will never toughen you up” really? Is this because the MOM is uncomfortable doing so, or because it would be harmful to the child? What does the mom qualify as “toughen up” ? My definition of toughen up is to prepare the child to function in today’s society, not to change who they are on a fundamental level. I think this article is a pat on the back, more than a teaching moment for other parents…

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  7. Barbara Filgate-Cobham

    I’m a highly sensitive adult and my highly sensitive daughter is a wonderful, hard working and talented young lady. This may sound like motherly bias, but I get this kind of feedback from others regularly! Sure, we may suffer hurt feelings more often, but I wouldn’t change the wonderful connections I have with most people for the challenging ones I have with a few. I teach music and love my life, in spite of a mother who believed she had to get my head out of the clouds. :)

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    • Thistle

      I totally agree with you! I also think something people forget is that being highly sensitive is a trait that doesn’t really change. Like introversion versus extroversion, it’s just who some of us are. We can learn to pass, we can learn to shove our natural tendencies down, or we can embrace our strengths and challenge the prevailing wisdom that there’s one “best” way to be. I’m a HSP and so is my son. And contrary to the pressure to “toughen up” our kids, I find that the more I support him in who he is, the better able he is to cope with a world that is sometimes not geared for kids like him.

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  8. Noelle Foster

    Brilliant! I love this so much. I teach acting to children from ages 3 to 18. My students are on the whole highly creative, energetic, dynamos. I shudder when I think that some of these child wonders could have ended up on psychotropic drugs instead of in my class where they can channel their exuberance in such a creative way. Who knows what these unfettered souls may be capable of achieving! Bravo!

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  9. Lysbeth

    My husband has a logical sort of smarts that I lack (dropped out and got his GED as a sophomore in High School age 16). He was labeled many things (sold his Ritalin on the playground back then) but those labels that our teachers and administrators put upon us actually molded us, challenged us, and helped to develop us into who we are today. I became a procrastinator due to lack of challenge in school. This has lead to me being very driven and working well under deadlines.
    Now that we have kids, age 2 and 4, and both my parents being teachers, we have no lack of (albeit informed) opinions on how to raise our children. I have been a Child Care Center Director and worked with children for 13 years and have taken numerous Child Development classes. I know where my kids are on every scale and I know what we want to do in raising them, but it is all a molding. Whether it comes from your reactions to someone’s comments (raising to them or giving into them) you/they are growing from that. Picture going down a ski slope: you put a little weight on your left, and then back to your right and continue until you reach your destination. It is a give-and-take to get there.
    Due to a mean classmate, I swore off competitive sports at 6th grade (mind you this is Texas and school = sports) but I always “played for the game”. My husband plays to win. EVERYTIME. So his reaction to my lack of drive so to speak is to make everything a competition – now the girls compete to run to get their vitamins, run to be 1st dressed or 1st in the car – everything is a competition. So our reactions have to be molded again, pulled back a bit.
    As long as we stay intentional parents, raising our children how we feel God has called us to raise them, I think we will be just fine. We do not let the world raise our children (I don’t think the world shared in my c-section!) You are here reading this, trying to make the best, most informed choices – KUDOS! and relax in the fact that you are doing your best.

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    • Kim

      Thank you. I LOVE this post. Can’t say I believe in God, but I believe in you… and your children… and mine. xx

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  10. L.R. Knost

    Oh my goodness, so, so beautiful! And so well-said. I write about this frequently and love when I happen across like-minded mamas. Sharing!

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  11. Sara Belik

    As a teacher myself, I get frustrated at hearing stories of the hurtful things other teachers say to parents or even to the child. I believe each child has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is our job as parents and teachers to help each child discover their niche in this world. I know the hurt my brother suffered at the hands of teachers comparing him to me (I was a quiet well behaved student, he struggled due to undiagnosed dyslexia and so acted out as a result) he was also labelled a male chauvinist by our mother who often told people this, several times clouding their opinion of him. I know for a fact this is not what he is and is very much about equality! The thing is is that the best teachers for our children are their parents. What the government has done has made us all think the only people who can educate are teachers so they can mold our children in the image they want not the image God intended. Parents if you can, protect your kids from being changed by becoming their teachers and homeschool, some of the greatest minds were homeschooled. We are the ones who know our kids and have the most vested interest in our kids. A teacher only has them for 40 weeks. I’m not saying teachers don’t care just that they can’t care as much as the parents.

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  12. Thistle

    Love the post! My comment is really about the comments. I am seeing so many great stories and comments from people about their children and the success they’ve had being who they are. I think they’re wonderful and I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but it’s important to remember that sometimes these personality traits go beyond the child him or herself and the needs of kids come in conflict. We have to navigate carefully to allow them BOTH to embrace who they are.

    We can’t nurture one child’s assertiveness at the expense of other children who are then bullied or simply steamrollered. As a formerly “bossy girl” myself but now mom to a reticent and sensitive son, I read the story below about the “bossy” little girl with very mixed feelings. I’m glad for the little girl and the woman she grew up to be, but her classmates had every right not to appreciate being told what to do all the time and it was entirely appropriate for the school to try and deal with that situation (not necessarily HOW they did it, but it shouldn’t have been ignored). Just because a child is quiet, doesn’t mean he or she is a follower, some kids just need the space and comfort to get their opinion out there. We’ve got to find ways to nurture kids that honor their diversity.

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  13. I love it! When my daughter was first born, I remember mentioning to a friend, “Maybe I should stop telling her how beautiful she is now so that she doesn’t become egotistical,” and my friend said, “The world will start telling her she isn’t beautiful soon enough. Keep telling her she is beautiful so that she knows who to believe.” Your story is in the same vein–enough happens to tear our children down in life. How much more horrible is it if their own parents are the ones who feel like they have to introduce their children to life’s hurts? Better that they know there’s always a safe spot when the world turns on them.

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    • Hands Free Mama

      I love your perspective, Casey. Thank you for sharing.

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    • Kim

      and the world will turn…

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  14. kelly lujan

    Our children are precious gifts in our lives. It is our job to support, love, and guide them down their path. It is not our job to choose their path. My daughter is fierce, independent, and strong; a force of nature. My son is sensitive, brilliant, and funny; a force of nature in his own way. I know I made mistakes, but I love the adults they have become.

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    • Hands Free Mama

      Beautiful and powerful, Kelly. Thank you.

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  15. Han-Mei Chiang.Swank

    In 4th grade I flunked many spelling tests, especially the one that had all the Midwest states starting with the letter I because I didn’t put the horizontal bar at the top and bottom of the letter I (see, even this font doesn’t do it!) and thus my teacher said they were L’s. My mom fought really hard with the teacher for being ridiculous and the ironic part is that I have had perfect handwriting since first grade. Multiple people have hated me over the years for how perfect it is and it has also earned me a lot of extra credit points for writing notes on chalkboards in class, etc etc. I have even been told it should be a font, it is so neat and clean. I’m now a licensed Architect and still put my handwriting to good use.

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  16. curlygoldlocks

    Who says being sensitive, being a 2nd chance giver, being a dreamer, or even being competitive is a weakness? Let’s look at the positive sides of those attributes. I’m pretty sure the school system wouldn’t want our children to be mean spirited or unmotivated now would they?

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  17. Mary Lou

    For me, it was “your daughter is too bossy”. Certainly, her classmates did not appreciate being always told what to do and when she was in kindergarten, I was requested to appear before the principal because my daughter had asked (“told” to hear it from the principal) her teacher to keep the class quiet. For everyone who thought I should alter her personality to fit the mold, I always said, “There is a place for her. We can’t all be followers. Some of us have to be leaders.” This morning, I watched as she sat just behind her committee chairman at the Nation’s Capitol and discretely advised him on the hearing for Homeland Security. Our job as parents is not to mold our children to the ways others think they should be, but instead to nurture their spirit and their potential.

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    • Hands Free Mama

      This is beautiful, Mary Lou. It gives me goosebumps and tears of happiness. Thank you for sharing your empowering and hopeful story.

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    • Han-Mei Chiang.Swank

      There is the phrase “well behaved women, seldom make history!” And maybe those saying she is bossy need to read the book “Lean In”. Some people are literally, born leaders!

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      • Mary Lou

        Thank you for the suggestion. Actually, she has read “Lean In” and has passed it on to the other women in her office.

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    • I love that! I like to say that we aren’t raising children–we’re raising adults. Yes, the assertive ones may get labeled bossy in their early years, but they really are leaders. And have you ever noticed that no one ever comments on a little boy being bossy? Little boys are leaders, but little girls are just bossy. The heck with that, man.

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      • Kim

        There is a lot here. Feminism has a long way to go…

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  18. Michelle

    While I agree with trying to celebrate our children’s personalities, I also think that it is our responsibility as parents to help them grow up equipped to deal with life in the real world. I see no reason I cannot applaud my daughter’s loving, kind nature while, at the same time, teach her to stand her ground and be more assertive.

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    • Kim

      The world is as we make it. Perhaps there is no ‘real’ and no ‘truth’. The world unfolds before us as we agree it will be with the people around us at any given time. We create.

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      • Michelle

        What a charmed life you must have led. I can share with you that the many instances in my life which forced me to toughen-up pretty hard and fast, were neither of my creation nor choosing. I wish I had been better prepared for them by my parents. I shan’t be making the same mistake with my own child.

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        • Kim

          Charmed, yes. Tough, also yes. Very. I really think we have much less to do with our children’s outcome than we would like to imagine. Not saying we don’t have an influence. I think at the end of the day, we are who we are. The ‘tough’ I’m referring to in my own life is definitely too raw for posting, but I still pick daisies (literally) and count the clouds. I’m not criticizing your choice to be tough. My mom was crazy tough and I believe I’m stronger for it. Just saying, her parenting choices didn’t make my own ‘head in the clouds’ attitude (as an adult) any different than it would be otherwise. But the slow-it-down dreamer in me also doesn’t make me less tough or less of a hard worker or less of anything. Anyway, we all do our best and I think that is the right idea. Parenting is hard and there don’t seem to be any/many right or wrong answers. One day at a time…

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    • Julie Jones

      Parenting to help our children recognize their good qualities yet helping them find balance to succeed in life. I agree with you Michelle.

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  19. Kay Hoffman

    While I don’t think she meant it to be hurtful a friend of mine told me my son was too competetive he was 6 at the time. He is a very competitive kid and I think that is a huge strength to have.He goes for what he wants and he goes at it with the intent to win or succeed, he plays hard at everything he does. I don’t see that as a bad thing, I think it will take him far in life, the drive is impressive. He is secure that if he gives it his best he can do it and he sticks at it. I find it amazing that people have no problem pointing at what they think our kids flaws are without thinking about the consequence it may carry. Thanks for the article!

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    • Kathryn Wood

      As the wife of a very competitive man, I had to comment. My husband decided only 9 years ago to enter the world of college administration from high school teaching. In large part to his amazing drive, he has completed his PhD, been advanced 5 times and is on the short track to being one of the youngest college presidents in the near future. Not being competitive myself, I can only sit back and wonder at the energy he has to succeed. There is a place for everyone. Enjoy the journey with your son!

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      • Hands Free Mama

        Lovely, Kathryn. Thank you for taking the time to offer this loving encouragement and hope to us all.

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  20. Renner

    It’s hard to be a daydreamer with a big imagination in the public school system we’ve found out. I’ve been told my son is “socially immature”, has a “processing disorder” and even that he could end up committing suicide if we don’t medicate his “attention problem” ! Finding ways to nurture his creativity and mitigate the negative feedback from school is my challenge.

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    • Shannon

      One of the things that has changed my life, and helped bring awareness to my gifts is a book called Aura Personalities. Check it out, it may change your son’s life, too. I always knew who I was and what my gifts were, but got frustrated because no one else understood me. When I read that book, I felt truly identified/understood like I had never experienced before. We all have gifts, and we are the way we are for great reasons! I am now an empowered adult for multiple reasons…this book being one of them. Good luck with everything!

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    • Renner

      Thank you, Shannon! I will definitely check out that book!

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  21. Jenni Brooks

    I received unsolicited “advice” yesterday about my child and I tried to keep it from upsetting me. I told myself “that person doesn’t know my kid” and “don’t worry she’s coming at this from a different angle” but it was extremely hurtful and rude. Thank you for looking at the opposite side of a weakness and providing some affirming words!

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  22. Wendy Starr Watson

    I recently went through my son’s old paperwork from school and ran across a letter from his first grade teacher that basically said “he will not make it in life”. He’s the #1 string bass player in his region and next year he’s going to be a Freshman and he’s playing Varsity orchestra! I thought when he graduates from HS I was going to send a copy of the letter to his teacher and say “thanks for the motivation because he didn’t conform to what others thought he should be, he’s now successful”!!! Just had to share!

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    • Carol

      Wow, what teacher says that about a child, let alone one in first grade? Congrats on your son’s accomplishments!

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    • What a wonderful story. Congratulations to you AND your son.

      Actually, your story is much like mine — in 1995 we wanted to start a website for Dr. Greene’s patients. We had a newborn and I was going to stay home to take care of him and run the site. Now keep in mind that in 1995 there were not many sites — total of 10,000 on the entire Web — and very few tools to build sites. I was learning as I went and asked for help from a technical guy who said no because he didn’t think a stay-at-home-mom could run a website. 18 years later, here we are!

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    • Maren Eeman-Herbst

      My first grade teacher told my parents way back when that either I was lazy or I was stupid. Seems I was not advanced enough in my language skills. And gee, not surprising seeing as I had only arrived in the USA from Germany several months earlier and only spoke German up until we moved. The teacher also demanded my parents stop speaking German with me at home. Fast forward 40+ years – my parents NEVER stopped speaking German with me, I did just fine in school, and now I am fluently tri-lingual. My teacher’s nasty comments still haunt me every once in a while, but not enough to stop me from raising MY children bi-lingually (Dutch and German), and as dessert they get the English thrown in for good measure as well!

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  23. Amber Strayer

    People tell me on a daily basis that my 9 year old is to naïve to be successful. It is the quality I love most about her. She always sees the best in people, she believes in second (and third, fourth, and fifth) chances, and she never gives up. I tell her every time someone tells her that it should be reassurance that she is headed on a caring path. I would rather she be naïve than cynical.

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    • Amber Stroyer

      i just thought it was cool our names are so similar! Just had to say that! and i totally agree with this post entirely. my daughter is very head strong and “stubborn”, born leader and likes what she likes! some say she bossy, lazy, demanding, etc. but i see a lot of great qualities there! she loves organizing kids on the play ground and orchestrating games. she is very passionate and even though it may be hard to deal with all the emotions sometimes, i know they will be great qualities to have as an adult!

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    • Julie Jones

      I agree with you, Amber. If not for some merciful (naïve they are often told) people who would give those who need another chance who NEED someone to help them with more than one ‘chance’

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