In our world, competition has never been keener. Personal worth is measured almost exclusively by judging people’s accomplishments and acquisitions. Unfortunately, the same yardstick is also used to measure our children. And children, like the sponges that they are, are quick to absorb that judgmental subtext. They pick up the torch by comparing themselves to others, which only compounds their situation. In any given environment, there will always be someone (or more than one someone) who is better at math, spelling, drawing, reading, music, has better hair, better personal skills, fewer freckles, no braces, better rhythm, or better clothes.
It’s the perfect storm which can cause a child to shipwreck themselves: a foundation of beliefs surrounding personal worth where recognition of effort, courage, love, and compassion do not even enter into the equation.
I mentioned Brené Brown’s important work in Part 1 of this topic, and it has a bearing here as well. Her work helps parents reverse unhealthy belief systems that children may already have formed, and prevent them from becoming a lifelong personal truth.
She recounted an event that touched her and informed her parenting, a Toni Morrison interview she saw on television. “Ms. Morrison explained that it’s interesting to watch what happens when a child walks into a room. She asked, “Does your face light up?” She explained, “When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. . . . You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now?” Her advice was simple, but paradigm- shifting for me. She said, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see?” (1)
Moved by that experience, and by her engagement with humanity through her shame research, Dr. Brown wrote “The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.” She says, “I use the manifesto as a touchstone, a prayer, and a meditation when I’m wrestling with vulnerability or when I’ve got that “never enough” fear. It reminds me of a finding that changed and probably saved my life: Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”
These parental responses teach kids object lessons in the most powerful way: by modeling healthy belief systems for our kids.
- When we model compassion toward ourselves, kids see how it’s done and the benefits it brings.
- When our face lights up each time we see them, they learn that they are deeply loved and lovable.
- When we recognize their efforts, not just the results, they feel validated and motivated to keep working hard.
- Sharing stories of struggle and strength (both our experiences and theirs) create the potting soil in which true courage is rooted.
- When our kids see us make amends for our mistakes, they learn accountability and respect.
- Modeling perseverance—referred to as ‘grit’ in her book “Rising Strong,” teaches kids how to keep going even when things go awry.
- Rather than aiming for the unreachable parental desire to take away our child’s pain, we can teach them how to feel it, how to respond to it, and how to determine what comes next after a failure or a disappointment.
These techniques are important for all young ones, but are especially crucial when parenting a child who struggles to learn.