We were too lazy to get dressed, so we only slightly camouflaged our pajamas, filled my purse with some not-too-stale Halloween candy, and ambled off to “The Peanuts Movie.” It had been a rather intense week: friends morphing into strangers, the testing of talents and preparation, moments to win, and many losses to face. Ample opportunity to scratch away at a gal’s confidence (and I don’t just mean my daughters). Shabbat was in sight, but for a rabbi’s family, the day of rest blurs with a day of work.
We needed a good laugh, and we all enjoyed the movie very much, but Charlie Brown himself is no laughing matter. Charles Schultz’s hope to make Charlie a “caricature of the average person who is more acquainted with losing than winning” was not a simple guffaw for my little trio.
Charlie Brown is the icon of the resilient loser. His lack of confidence is familiar and confusing, endearing and completely frustrating. He seems to be addicted to feeling inadequate. He expects failure, dreads social encounters, and wishes daily for a “fresh start,” so much to the point that you have got to wonder who his parents are? What might they be doing or not doing to keep Charlie’s self image so fragile? We, of course, never meet them, and instead smile in understanding when we hear the unintelligible words of the adults. The world of these kids is informed and reinforced only by the kids themselves. Great insight of us for parents, I think.
We see Charlie try new things, not because he necessarily wants to, but rather because he is chasing a “new” Charlie Brown image. Spoiler alert: This never happens. His negative self-perception locks into place all those same humiliating experiences he has known until now; he trips, spills, misses footballs, and runs breathless in his dark hamster wheel of shame.
However, Charlie does get his 15 minutes of fame based on a mistaken test score. During this first taste of admiration from his peers, he begins to find himself newly successful. He fixes things for others, reads a book way out of his league, and goes on to write an advanced literary critique.
Being from this imperfect human race, however, Charlie cannot hold on to this new self image. His public admission about the mistaken test outcome downgrades him to loser status with his peer group again. What if Charlie could have realized his bravery rather than his blockheaded-ness—would the kids have taunted him then? Would their opinion of him mattered as much? Doubt and shame, his more familiar roommates, grab hold of him again. So loud are his internal tapes of self-loathing, he is deaf to the affections of the little red-headed girl. His book report gets destroyed, summer break begins, and he retreats into the safety and isolation of that hamster wheel.
Back home in bed, I talked with the kids about how our self-perceptions truly dictate our outcomes. Charlie was still Charlie, filled with blunders and oddities, but his elevated genius status, mistaken though it was, piqued the curiosity of his peers. Suddenly, he could do no wrong in their eyes. This validation became an actual energy that enlivened Charlie to pursue new goals successfully. Activities that his fear had previously blocked were now in reach.
As a parent, I would like to think it is within my control to build my children’s confidence. I want to blame Charlie Brown’s parents for his low self-esteem, but we never see them. Maybe that is part of the problem. However, I am that mom who drops and picks up my kids most day. I pack lunches and ask questions, and I always try to take their perspectives into account, especially when it comes to food and fashion, two of my weaker arenas. I stay out of friend dramas unless asked, and refrain as best as I can from writing their papers for them.
Still they feel badly about themselves. Often. They feel alone, or unaccepted by their peers. They doubt their abilities, though their talents and smarts have already earned them praise and attention. What are they hearing from the world at large? Is this a gene that we pass on? I grew up in a loving and connected family, but heard and saw a great deal of blame and regret. I was lauded only for my achievements and was never introduced to the necessary life tools to help balance the wins with the losses.
What if self-doubt is just a fake out? An emotional distractor from getting what we want? I don’t have the answers. I am just a mom with lots of questions. But I know that sitting with all the discomfort these questions bring up in us is what will help us find a way to believe in ourselves more often, despite what those other blockheads might say. And for that, I have Charlie Brown to thank.