The other day I woke up with a wicked cold. Razor blades lodged in my nasal passageways and a head filled with concrete. Everything hurt.
It was a Monday.
I hauled myself out of bed, went downstairs, drank a glass of water, ate breakfast, fed the dog, and sat down to my journal. And proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes writing about how badly I wanted to stay home and yet how badly I would feel if I did that.
What would people think of me?
Would they think I was a slacker?
That I had “too much fun” over the weekend?
Stayed up too late?
Was avoiding my responsibilities?
The pain of those thoughts was nearly as strong as the pains in my body.
And why? Why was I so consumed by what others would think of me? The act of journaling about the matter brought me face to face with the absurdity of my thinking as I contemplated going into the office with an awful cold, just so that others wouldn’t have the opportunity to think something negative about me (which they probably wouldn’t have thought anyway.)
In her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey suggests that we may inadvertently train our children to think in this way. To focus on the approval of others as a means of gauging our success and acceptability. We do this in part through the language that we use. Overusing words like “please” and “thank you” with our children, combined with praising their accomplishments rather than effort can train them to see the approval of others as the ultimate measurement of their worth.
Thinking back, I don’t honestly remember whether my mother said please or thank you that much when I was little. (And it’s not just about parents – we are all surrounded by people who influence us, and whose approval we may become trained to covet.)
What I do know is that I developed a strong desire to win the approval of others, early on.
There’s no judgement in this. I’m not aware that my mother, teachers or other adults had access to any information that might have inspired them to speak differently than they did. We all do the best that we can with the tools and information that’s available to us.
Yet this generation of parents DOES have access to information. And we’ll do both ourselves and our children a favor by investigating it.
Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be more capable of saying “no” than others? In any group of friends there may be that one person who refuses to bend to the will of the group. They might not feel like going out to the party, or they may be the one teenager who chooses not to drink alcohol despite the rest of the friends doing so.
I used to think that those people were just wired differently.
But what if they aren’t?
What if their parents or other influencers did something different?
What if your children and mine (and you and I too) could also have that kind of confidence to not be driven by the opinions and actions of others?
I’ve read numerous books on children and parenting, and yet my skills remain far from honed. I’ve raised my voice to my son, sent him to his room, and generally allowed my own emotions to affect the way that I discipline him. And what I’ve realized is that nine times out of ten, the emotions I’m feeling about his behavior have some root in how I perceive others will think of me.
How backward is this?
And yet how common.
When your kid has a meltdown in a store, or acts out in school, is it not fair to say that in many cases, your upset has some root in what you fear others are thinking of you as a parent?
Perhaps you are different.
Yet I know that’s been true for me.
It’s embarrassing to admit because we want to believe that we don’t think that way, and yet our embarrassment too speaks to a desire to be perfect, (in the eyes of whom?) which doesn’t help our kids one bit.
We are all human, and we are only as skilled as our education and exposure allow us to be. In order to get better we must identify what it is we want (in my case, a thoughtful, confident and independent child) and then seek out the models which will help us learn the skills.
One success that I have observed recently comes from that tiny tweak in language, which I learned from Dr. Bailey’s book:
When my son does something like take his plate to the kitchen after a meal, or share a toy with another kid, instead of saying “good job, thanks honey” (which teaches him that my approval is the reward) I began saying:
“You bussed your plate! That’s helpful,” or
“You shared the magnet tile car with Regina, that was thoughtful.”
The way I determined this to be successful is that Henry has begun saying thank you when I use words like that.
This tells me that he’s made his own decision that he wants to be helpful, and he’s appreciating my noticing his actions.
Dr. Bailey points out that kids want to be seen.
How often do kids say “Look at me?” They say “watch me go down the slide!” or “look at this Lego castle I built!”
(Adults want to be seen too, by the way.)
They want us to see what they are doing or have done. Instead of judging them with words like “great job!” or “you are the best Lego-builder” we can see and acknowledge them by saying things like “look at you! You did it!”
These words help others to feel seen without being judged. And that allows them to make their own decisions about who they are and who they choose to become. Without overly depending on what others think of them.
My hope is that my son can grow up to be the kind of person who feels comfortable & confident in taking care of himself, whether that be speaking up when he is ill, saying no to things that aren’t good for him, and saying yes to the things that energize his body, mind and spirit.
As a matter of fact, I wish that for all of us.