In my latest novel, Kyleah's Tree, although she doesn't understand it in these terms, Kyleah is looking for herself—a better self than the one she perceives when she looks in the mirror.
"I wished to be pretty so Dad could love me," she told Aunt Jude upon return to her foster home after running away. She was less than 4-years-old when her mother said to her, "Pretty is as pretty does. Don't go thinking you're beautiful. It's what's inside that counts." As is typical of a child that age, she took the comment to heart. As a result, the false belief that she is too ugly to love was instilled. At age eleven, she still avoids getting close to people, sure that they are repulsed by her appearance. Physical beauty has become synonymous, in her mind, with self-worth, and takes on far more importance than it merits. She feels unlovable.
Self-esteem in a child is fragile. It can be shattered with a careless phrase, spoken in anger, in jest, or in a passing comment that is merely misinterpreted by the youngster. The latter is the case of my mother, Dorothy, who spent most of her life thinking she was unnaturally and conspicuously tall. An acquaintance stopped her and her grandmother when they were walking down the street one day. "My how she has grown. Isn't she tall for her age?" the woman asked. From that day on, Dorothy slumped in an effort to look "normal," until she grew old, hump-backed, and too short, even by her own estimation.
Perhaps Kyleah's inaccurate self-image is not the only reason she ran away from home, but it led to the circumstances that sealed the decision. It is too often the case that children who lack self-confidence and feel "ugly' end up as victims if they decide to run away. Such children are in danger of sexual assault or exploitation when they run away from home. Kyleah is no exception, but, thanks to Benjamin's intervention, she was able to escape what could have been much worse than they were.
My hope is that children reading this book will be forewarned; that they will develop a strong enough sense of their own self-worth to make them less vulnerable to inappropriate advances.
I wish for all children of this difficult pre-adolescent age, a strong sense of who they are, love for themselves, and an understanding that "home" begins with knowing and accepting one's self.
(Drawing above is by Pat Lehmkuhl from Miranda and Starlight.)