Here’s a question worth considering — What do you think of your child?
Here’s a more important one — What does your child think you think of him/her?
The two are related but not at all the same thing. Certainly, the answer you give to the first will not be the same as the answer your kid(s) would give to the second. The greatest value of both, however, lies in the difference between them.
It’s worth considering what we think of our children for more than a few reasons, but a few of them are as follows:
- Without considering it, we may be feeling something we haven’t yet been fully aware that we were feeling — adoration, esteem, admiration, contempt, sadness, distrust.
- Calling it to our own attention, gives us the opportunity to choose a perspective from any number of possibilities, rather than being swept up into a stream of unconscious mantras about “the way things are going”.
- Finally, being clear about what we think of our children is the best guide we can hope for in knowing how to teach and work with them as they grow and develop.
It winds up being “more important” to consider what our children think we think of them, because that is what they are receiving from us, regardless of what we actually think. If we enjoy being with them but they don’t think so, then obviously we need to adjust how we show it. If we think they are “irresponsible”, but they believe that we think they are “stupid” or that we just don’t like them — then we are blowing it on teaching them about responsibility, and blowing it on making sure that they know we love them unconditionally.
Again, there’s more than a few reasons (but here’s a few of them) why we ought to look into what our kids think we think of them:
- In part, we just want to be sure that what we are attempting to communicate is getting through. “Does the fact that I love my daughters no matter what they do or say, actually sit in their minds as a given? Do they know as much as they can know about my feelings for them?”
- Based on whether or not they are “picking up what we are putting down”, we can formulate a sense of what they’ve understood from our previous actions and words, and thus may better choose our future actions and words to specialize in communicating what we have not yet succeeded in communicating.
- And most importantly, while we have the deceptively brief opportunity, we want to have as much influence as possible over how our children see themselves. Their first and foremost perspective on themselves is coming from us. If we want to be sure we are having the effect we wish to have in this area, we have to know what they have gotten from us.
While we are at it — it would serve us to also consider what we want our children to think of themselves. Do we really want them to think they are “so silly”? Or “impatient”? Or “bad”? “Stingy”? “Naughty”? “Stupid”? Do we want them to think of themselves as thieves, or untrustworthy liars, or mean pranksters, or vicious hooligans, or deviant animals? Because if we don’t — if that isn’t what we want them to think of themselves –then we’d do well to approach how we treat them accordingly.
If they are taking their first impressions of themselves from us, and those impressions are based on what they perceive us thinking of them (from our actions and words to them more than our thoughts about them) then we want to make sure that we are transmitting to them what we want them to think of themselves. That is to say, if we don’t want them to think of themselves as lying, cheating, nefarious miscreants, then we had better watch how we treat them and what we say to them about their behavior.
We can think of this as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We imagine them as acting/being “bad”, then we call our kids “bad”, then they think of themselves as (always, already) “bad”, and then do more “bad” things based on this perspective. We treat them as though they can’t be trusted, they act accordingly. We look for the worst, they show it.
It’s incredibly easy to trip along the well groomed parenting super-highway toward treating the kids like inmates in a high security facility in the boonies well outside town. It happens one interaction at a time. And with kids’ willingness and prowess in living up to our expectations, it is not long before parents feel totally victimized, and then justified in running their homes like a lock-down. And in that situation, it feels as though there is no choice but to remain on guard.
But one interaction at a time we can undo even this worst case scenario by adjusting our thoughts, and augmenting our actions, and words, and even our expectations to match what we want our kids to be. One interaction at a time, we can communicate our feelings of unconditional love and acceptance of our children — even, and perhaps especially, when we don’t like what they are doing. Every chance we get, we can be sure we are communicating clearly with all of our faculties that we think our children are good, are well intentioned, are sweet, are kind, are learning what life is about.
So when I come into the living room and the 3 year old is disemboweling her sister’s favorite stuffed animal with a Sharpie, I don’t have to assume she is trying to exact some revenge, or trying to be mean, or attempting to irrevocably destroy her innocent sister’s little friend. I can choose to assume the best about her intentions (innocent unless proven guilty), and at the very least, I can choose to be neutral about how I communicate with her about it, remembering that she is recording what I say on her list of things that she is. And, if I am paying close attention, I can even take it one step further, and use the moment to reaffirm how I hope she will think of herself (in this case, kind, compassionate, considerate, etc.) by appealing to her ability to empathize, asking her to imagine how she would feel if the tables were turned, and by giving her gentle information about how her sister might feel — expecting and treating her as if she is smart enough and “good” enough to get it.
We don’t really get to control what our children become. But we can make sure that we keep our thoughts about them clear, and consistent with an empathetic view of the facts. And we can make sure that we communicate (i.e. show as well as talk about) what we want them to know about our thoughts of and feelings for them. We can even find out what they are getting from our communications — just ask ’em. It’s our best bet for helping them to become what we hope for them, and our only hope for influencing what they decide about themselves.
May we all be exceptional at making sure our kids know we love and respect them, even if we are hating what they just did. Be well.