Q. I am a full-time mother with four great children -- three of them teen-agers -- and I've been confined to a wheelchair since 1983.
Although I can drive and perform most of the simpler tasks of running a home, coping is still hard, but that's not my real problem.
It embarrasses my children to death to be singled out for awards, especially our eldest, who is 16. She is incredibly beautiful, 5 feet 10 inches, blond, with chocolate brown eyes; she is easily the smartest person in her class; has an angelic singing voice; is a wonderful actress, and is the kindest person I've ever known.
And yet this child is terrified that people will think she's conceited, even though she never brags. She cries at my feet -- afraid that no one really likes her -- and is as miserable as any teenager I know. I tell her it's hormones and high school, and that I wouldn't be a teenager again on a dare, but what else can I say?
The problem is compounded by my friends. They say I don't know anything about parenthood because my children win all the awards and are "perfect" -- as if they don't act like stubborn, inconsiderate smarties sometimes, or that I don't worry as much about sex, drugs and alcohol as they do.
I have had so much sourness thrown in my face that I have quit having lunch with "the girls." I can't tell any stories about my children, good or bad, without getting the "look." It's hard enough to be permanently paralyzed, without being patronized and left out of the conversation.
Why is it assumed that attractive people, rich people, smart people, talented people, are necessarily happier people? Life is difficult for everyone and I am tired of defending my babies, who are the light of my life.
A. Your friends may be jealous because you can rear four great prize-winning children even from a wheelchair, but there must be more to their behavior than that.
People seldom respond so negatively to the good news of others, unless it makes them feel defensive. If you want to be one of "the girls," you have to talk a lot more about their children than yours, so they'll know that you're not comparing their achievements. Competition undermines any friendship.
You also need to understand parentspeak a little better. All parents want to be proud of their children -- and most of them are -- but they express their pride in many ways. Some are quite straightforward about it -- as you are -- but many parents minimize the accomplishments of their children, as though the gods will get them if they brag, or they even do their bragging in reverse -- the old "my kid is worse than your kid" routine.
Whatever the style, it often has more to do with culture than reality. Parents who come from an outgoing, expansive family will usually find something good to say about their children, no matter what they do. If their own parents were more reserved, however, or thought that boasting was tacky, they will complain about their children instead (so others can interrupt and do the boasting for them).
But no child wants her parents -- or her friends -- to talk about her constantly, whether they're complimentary or not, because that will make her feel like an oddity.
Which brings us to your beautiful, gifted 16-year-old.
Even though your child is abundantly, genetically bound to succeed, she sounds like she also feels a little pressure at home. Children tend to perform at about the level they think their parents expect of them, whether in academics, sports or popularity. If they think these expectations are high, they will do well, and if they are low, they will tend to do poorly.
It's possible to stress awards -- and grades -- so much, however, that children can think the prizes are more important than the learning and effort it takes to earn them. The more prizes are emphasized, even in the safety of the family, the more children feel torn by the need to excel -- to please their parents -- and the need to conform, to please themselves.
It's always better for children to learn to compete against themselves much more than each other; to try to do a little better today than yesterday, and to do it for the satisfaction it brings, and not the rewards.
If you can instill these beliefs in your children, they will turn into adults wise enough to try new jobs, and new directions, when there's nothing left to learn in the old ones.
This might be a good time to try something new yourself, and maybe get some other friends, and a stronger sense of purpose outside of your family. A recently paralyzed patient at a hospital would love to learn your homemaking skills and see how well you've gotten on.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.