“Benign neglect” is the phrase that best describes my parents’ approach to parenting in the 1970s. What today might be called “free-range parenting” or actual neglect, back then was just childhood.
When it comes to building our child’s self-belief and esteem, telling and showing them that we love them as often as possible makes a big difference, no matter what age they are, he says. Even on difficult days or after a disagreement, when we might not feel particularly loving, it is most important to reconnect with our love for them and to express it.
Note: I am using the principles that guide the martial art Tai Chi, with its foundation in Taoism. Like my book The Tao of Motherhood, these principles translate beautifully to what I call “Right Parenting.”
“In adulthood we often see responsibility as something dreadful. Why should we dig the ground when the weather is disagreeable? We see activities as obligations, and we strain against our fate. But there is a joy to working in harmony with the proper time. When we do things at just the right occasion and those efforts bear fruit, the gratification is tremendous.”
— Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao Daily Meditations
This principle follows closely on the heels of Principle Four. It deepens our awareness of how to respond rather than react to our children. It helps us learn how to accept and handle our responsibility to them throughout our lives, for being responsive also includes responsibility.
In Tai Chi, being responsive is the practice of learning to become sensitive to others without becoming enmeshed with them. It cultivates a balanced awareness of our surroundings and of the people with whom we interact. We are often so loaded with preconceived notions, family scripting, and social conditioning from the popular media or our social circle that it is difficult to approach anything new without filtering the new through the old.
The Tai Chi student’s most important work is to learn to be aware of the flow of chi and to work with it as he or she does the exercises and movements of the martial art, including sparring with partners or “opponents.” In the same way, we as parents are given endless opportunities to practice awareness about our children’s energy, their individual way of being — what comes with them — so that when we respond to them we are responding to them uniquely, not just as “my kid.”
“When you master the outward by means of the inward, all affairs are unspoiled. If you can attain this within, your internal organs are peaceful and your thoughts are calm; your muscles are strong, your yes and ears are alert and clear. You have accurate perceptions and understanding, you are firm and strong without snapping.”
This principle relates to how we teach our children to respond to circumstances and people, and how we model and teach responsibility.
A lack of responsiveness comes in many forms, mostly unintentional. When you see an irresponsible, disrespectful child, you can look to the parents and the home environment where the child is constantly modeled adult interactions. Often the child is mirroring something going on in the home that is not apparent to the outside world, or even spoken of in the home itself.
Sometimes a particularly sensitive child will unconsciously take on the parents’ problems. Often, when a child goes from being friendly, inquisitive, radiant, and loving to closed down, irresponsible, and difficult, he may be acting out the parents’ unspoken problems. That is why, when a child is taken in for therapy, many therapists want to see the whole family. The therapist knows the child is probably feeing the heavy weight of “something wrong” and is justifiably angry about having to bear the brunt of unspoken problems.
Some irresponsible parents may neglect their children, but it goes deeper than that. Setting up an environment of win-lose, wherein the parent is always right, and where blaming and helplessness prevail prevents us from using the principle in any way. When there is no mutual respect, boundaries cannot be set and negotiated as a child grows older. There is confusion about who is the child and who is the parent.
If anger and emotional and physical reactions are the only feedback a child receives from his parents, the child grows up with little self-motivation and less and less respect for the parents. As a teenager, the tables may turn. The parents become afraid of their children’s anger and cave in to his every demand. Eventually the child looks for other people with whom to have reactive relationships.
So often this child never grows up; in her adult relationships she is either the controller or the one being controlled, by anger and reaction. The child never learns to be sensitive to other people — their feelings, their histories, or what they need. She becomes self-centered, narcissistic, and wants the word to revolve around her and her — by this time — endless need for validation from others.
Responsiveness is self-management, and sensitivity to the needs of others. It follows that it requires empowerment (Principle Three). A person who is disempowered cannot think of others, and cannot even manage his own choices. His chi or vital energy has been disrupted and siphoned off, so to speak, by the disempowering environment in which he grows. Building that back up as an adult is a difficult and usually lifelong process.
If you grew up in a home where you were neglected or constantly on the losing end of a win-lose situation, you will try to build the responsiveness and responsibility of Principle Five in yourself at the same time that you try to maintain it in your household — not an easy task by any means, but one you can handle.
CHOOSING TO BE RESPONSIVE
You can make the choice to turn your family dynamic toward health and spirituality. It is up to you. Look forward to it as a tremendous challenge and opportunity, as another important aspect of your path of parenting, if you choose to see it that way.
The foundation you lay now, even though you may slip back sometimes, will only grow stronger in the future. By the time you are a grandparent, this will all come much more naturally to you, so you can help your kids even more, and your grandchildren’s foundation in these principles will be taken for granted by them.
When you leave this earth, it will be with the knowledge that though your struggle, you have changed generations of unhealthy, unskilful ways of being and have affected all the people that come within the circle of influence of your children, your grandchildren, and future progeny. That is quit a legacy.
RESPONDING VS. REACTING
The moment between stimulus and response is the precious moment when trust is built or broken We need to train ourselves to pause in that moment, reflect, and respond rather than react to what is being done or said. Sometimes this means we need to take a time out for ourselves, to calm down, relax, remember our principles, and choose our response consciously, rather than reacting like we would to a bee sting or snake bite.
Chungliang Al Huang states, “One principle in the practice of Tai Chi is understanding that your energy will reb found naturally unless you interrupt.” This principle, perhaps more than all the others, requires us to be grown-ups, to intentionally re-script ourselves to respond in a deep thinking, empathic way to the people around us — even if we seem to be the only “grown-up” present in a room full of adults.
The great psychologist Carl Rogers said that the true communicator enables the other person to explore feelings and to mature. He was the first to describe the core conditions necessary for a positive, helping relationship. These include unconditional positive regard (respect), genuineness, and empathy (true understanding, from the other person’s point of view).
Respect means you accept the other person as she is and you care about how she feels. She does not need to change in order to earn your respect.
Genuineness means you come across as a real, authentic person, not a “role.” You are straightforward and sincere. You let people know who you are and what you stand for in ways that are kind and compassionate rather than judgmental or argumentative.
Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel and to accept others’ experiences as valid. You can trust an empathic person with your feelings. An empathic person doesn’t judge how you feel, tell you how you feel or should feel, analyze you, or gossip to others about your feelings told in confidence.
When you learn how to practice being responsive, you will also get a good handle on Principe Three (Empower), and become far more empowered. As adults we have the choice to move from childlike joy, wonder, and fun to adult reasoning, sensitivity, and the ability to set boundaries.
Principle Five — being fully responsive — includes learning to easily and naturally move between these poles — of our own volition, not because outside forces trigger it in us.
Being responsive is more than the ability to respond sensitively to your environment. It is the ability to take responsibility for your life, to refrain from gaming circumstances and other people for everything that happens in your life. This is also a “grown-up” principle to practice, because often it certainly appears that circumstances and other people are responsible for a lot of what happens t you. But you are responsible as well. The challenge is to take responsibility for your part in whatever happens, and to see the part of you that must change in order for the externals to change.
If you have been subjected to a lot of shame and blame in childhood, this principle may be difficult to master. There may be unconscious processes going on that you don’t even understand that help create problems for you — still, putting the responsibility for them squarely on your own shoulders is the first step. The beauty of it is that you also get to release the things you are not responsible for to those who are.
We are not responsible for the words and actions of our parents. Yet, we can only blame our parents for so long if we cannot control our temper. At some point, we have to take the responsibility to earn how to do it, and then to teach it to our children if it was not taught to us. The same principle applies in many other areas of life, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
© 2015 Vimala McClure
Nothing is more precious to me than the discussions I have with my 19-year-old daughter. I consider her frequent use of me as a sounding board my crowning achievement as a parent (yep, I’m taking full credit for this one). After keeping so many secrets from my own mother, this element of our relationship has been a tremendous surprise and immensely flattering. Here’s what I believe has made it possible:
Study Tracks Teenagers Through Nine Years
A study conducted by members of the psychology department at the University of Virginia found that parents who exercised psychological control of their teenagers hinder their child’s ability to develop close relationships later on in adulthood. The study, published in the journal Child Development, was titled “The Cascading Development of Autonomy and Relatedness from Adolescence to Adulthood.”
“Adolescents who have parents who do this learn that in close relationships it is bad to assert your opinion and you’ll hurt other people,” said Elenda Hessel, one of the doctoral candidates who worked in the research group conducting the study. “They think that this is what happens at home and so this is what must happen elsewhere.”
Throughout a nine-year time period, researchers tracked 184 teenagers from a public middle school in Virginia. The study began when the participants were 13-years-old and continued until they were 21. The group assessed the adolescents’ relationships with their parents to determine its relationship to the development of autonomy and relatedness with their friends and romantic partners.
Guilt, Shame, Withdrawing Love, Cultivating Anxiety
The parent’s use of guilt, shame, withdrawing love or cultivating anxiety — all examples of psychological control — set the adolescents on a long-term trajectory toward badly functioning relationships in the future.
“We have no evidence that provides why exactly these parents do this,” Hessel said. “However, it may be possible some parents had the same relationship or that some of them are scared and anxious and don’t have good ideas so they resort to these methods.”
During each assessment period at ages 13, 18 and 21, researchers asked the participants about their psychological health, their values, their parents’ conduct and their relationships with their friends. As the participants matured, the researchers began adding more questioning pertaining to their romantic partners.
Regarding their parents’ behavior, the participants were asked to assess the degree to which their mothers and fathers used guilt, anxiety, love withdrawal and other manipulative methods.
“Self-reporting is often the most informative method of gathering data,” Hessel said.The researchers rated various situations on a 10-point scale. For example, with the question “My mother/father is a person who is less friendly with me, if I do not see things his/her way,” respondents could give a value of one, meaning “not like my mother/father” or a value of three being “a lot like my mother/father.”
The group created another phase of the study that simulated real-life interactions. At each assessment period, the participants were placed in a video-monitored room and were given an activity or question that forced them to disagree.
“The idea was to look at how adolescents talk about things when they disagree with one another,” Hessel said. “We think it’s a good skill to have to express yourself without damaging the relationship, and being able to say, ‘I disagree with you but I still value you.’”
At age 13 for example, they were told that 12 people were stranded on Mars and only seven would fit on the ship returning home. The adolescents separately picked the seven people and later came together to discuss disagreement and come to a decision.
Once the participants were 21, they discussed real-life issues in their relationships, such as money or budgetary problems, jealousy and communication issues. Researchers used a coding system that indicated expressions of reasoning and confidence — a sign of autonomy — and warmth and collaborativeness, a sign of relatedness.
As predicted, the researchers found that parental psychological control ultimately undermines the youth’s ability to properly express autonomy and relatedness when in disagreement with close friends and later on, romantic partners. This shows the importance of the transitional period from early adolescence to adulthood.
“The transition period from early adolescence to early adulthood is the time when the peer group matters more and determines how they’re able to navigate those relationships and the expectations going into new relationships,” Hessel said.
Researchers emphasized that without the right parental guidance, adolescents will be ill-prepared to manage their relationships.“Guilt tripping your kids won’t be good for them in the long run,” Hessel said. “You can still have an influence over your kids at this age and let it be a good one.”
Principle Four with Young ChildrenEven young children are experts at detecting hypocrisy. Acting as if you have no flaws or problems can seriously damage the communication between you and your kids. “Be Yourself” sounds simplistic, but having an awareness of who that is requires you to be thoughtful and slow down, accepting yourself for who you are, where you came from, and what you truly believe.
Principle Four with Young Children
Even young children are experts at detecting hypocrisy. Acting as if you have no flaws or problems can seriously damage the communication between you and your kids. “Be Yourself” sounds simplistic, but having an awareness of who that is requires you to be thoughtful and slow down, accepting yourself for who you are, where you came from, and what you truly believe.
Constant praise unconnected to behavior can inflate children’s egos so that they get a distorted picture of themselves and become devastated by mistakes, flaws, and being just “one of the team.” A child who is praised too much in a superficial way cannot handle being a “simple dandelion,” even if that is what he is meant to be.
[Messages assuring your child that you love him no matter what are not included — they do not count as constant praise.]
Self-esteem boosters are more effective when connected with behavior. For example:
— “I love the colors you chose for that drawing. They’re so vibrant, just like you!”
— “Thanks for doing the dishes without being asked. You really know how to be a team player. You are so important to our family.”
— “Good grades on your report card! You must have really worked for those. Congratulations! I knew you had it in you.”
— “The teacher told me how nicely you shared the toys today. That makes me feel so happy. You’re very considerate.” (You may have to define “considerate” — a great opportunity to continue the conversation and teach a new word).
In this way, you show your children that good values and character traits are demonstrated by behavior and must be consciously worked at. In the same way, incorporating reasoning into the discipline process can also get the point across. Rather than reacting impulsively or parroting phrases you read, be yourself and speak from your heart. For example:
— “I felt disappointed when you hit Jason. I know inside you are a kind person, and hitting isn’t kind. What other ways do you think you could express your angry feelings?”
— “I’m so happy you got a B in math; I know that subject has been hard for you. What about this C in history? What do you think is the problem?”
— “Doing chores around the house is part of us being a close family. What do you need to help you do your share more often?”
When a child misbehaves it is usually because she has need that isn’t being met, and often the child can’t articulate that need. We must become very astute detectives and observe them for a while to see if we can figure out what the need might be. We could than ask them something like: “Have you been feeling as close to the family as you want to lately?” or, “Is your love bucket getting low? Need a hug?’
If your child answers with denial, continue feeding back what you think it may be:
— “You haven’t been doing your chores, so I just thought maybe you didn’t feel as close to everybody as you want.”
— “Your grades have dropped, so I thought maybe you have some stress or worry you’d like to talk about.”
— “You’ve been acting very unhappy, so I thought maybe some extra attention might help. Can I give you a hug?”
Usually the child will then open up and try to tell you what is going on.
Offering a massage, putting your arm around your child, or holding his hand can help sometimes. Again, you need to stay focused on the child’s need, and feed back what you think you’re hearing without judgment. Don’t force your child to talk; give her time to come to you when she feels safe and wants to. You can say, “If you want to talk about anything, I’m here to listen.”
Sometimes sharing your history, in small doses, can help your child feel not so alone. Let your child know you had similar experiences and feelings at his age, if it is true. It can be a relief as long as you don’t go on and on or suggest that you know exactly how they feel, because you do not. Show a genuine curiosity about your children’s feelings and experiences. If they don’t expect a lecture or judgment, they will open up to you. Never interrupt them!
Sometimes kids need to talk for a long time, with starts and stops and stutters; especially very young kids tend to try to speak what’s on their minds faster than they are able. You don’t need to solve their problems. Let them solve their own. You can give a couple of suggestions, emphasizing they’re only suggestions, and always end with, “I have faith in your good judgment and ability to solve problems. If you need any help or just want to talk about it, I’m here.”
This is not an easy lesson for parents to learn. You’ll find yourself blowing it again and again. But you can always go back to your child and say, “When we talked I really blew it. I jumped in with a boring lecture instead of listening to you. I hope you’ll give me another chance.” Recently, I had this scenario with my 36-year-old daughter! Still learning!
It may not be at that moment, but usually your child will give you another chance to just listen, skillfully, without telling her your autobiography or trying to solve her problems unless she asks you for advice. Even then, use questions to try to get her to come to the solution or possible solutions herself, so she feels empowered. When it works, you can say, “Great job! I knew you could figure that out.” and/or “I’m so proud of the way you handle problems.” Instead of “I told you so.”
Self-concept is the image we hold of ourselves — of our abilities, our nature, qualities, and typical behavior. This is formed in our earliest years by what we hear about ourselves through those closest to us. In essence, children come to see themselves the way their parents and caregivers see them. Therefore, when they consistently get the message that they are “bad,” “naughty,” or “stupid” or that they “act like a baby,” that message is internalized.
Because self-concept determines behavior, children will act out how they feel inside. A child who believes himself to be bad will, therefore, exhibit bad behavior, often causing the parent to pile on more shame in an effort to control it. The cycle perpetuates.
More than Behavior
We have a habit of reducing children to nothing more than behavior, and we treat only the behavior we see rather than treating the human being behind the behavior. When we are focused on only treating behavior, we may be quick to dole out punishments or use shaming tactics to gain compliance. When we are focused on treating the human being, we are able to empathize, teach, and guide the child to better behavior. This is obviously a healthier approach, but it takes more time and effort.
Shaming is quick and often effective, so don’t be fooled into taking the easy way out. There is a valuable, worthy human being behind that behavior.
Self-concept can be defined as the view one has of herself and her abilities. A child’s self-concept begins to develop at birth. It begins with how adults respond to her. Parents and caregivers create a positive emotional bond with an infant through warm and caring interactions. This positive emotional bond with parents and caregivers promotes a child’s healthy self-concept.
As the child grows, her ability to interact successfully with her environment nurtures a healthy self-concept. This is critically important in early childhood. The development of a positive self-concept at an early age empowers the child to feel competent, try new things, and strive for success. As parents, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to nurture a positive self-concept in our children.
Choose How You Offer Feedback
The way we grew up can have a tremendous impact on who we are as adults and as parents. As soon as possible — ideally during pregnancy — think about how you were treated as a child, and what behaviors you wish to change with your own children. Here is an easy-to-understand list of “Don’ts” versus “Do’s”
Shame abandons — encouragement believes.
Condemnation paralyzes — compassion frees.
Exasperation quits — patience prevails.
Yelling silences — communication opens up.
Blame hurts — grace heals.
Fault-finding destroys — praise builds.
Rejection loses — unconditional love wins.
Shaming your Kids
Shame has long been wielded as a powerful tool to modify a child’s behavior. When made to feel unworthy, children will usually try harder to please their parents, giving the illusion that it’s “working,” but those feelings of worthlessness cause deep scars which can take a lifetime to heal.
Shame isn’t only common in abusive homes, but is generally an acceptable form of “discipline” in your average “nice” family. Shaming includes verbal comments such as “stop acting like a baby,” “you naughty child,” and “are you that stupid?” as well as the unfortunate trend in public shaming and social media humiliation.
Ten Things You Can Do to Nurture a Positive Self-Concept
1. Be mindful of the language you use to describe your children. Do not label them with words such as ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘mean’. Instead, look for and point out your child’s strengths.
2. Provide them with opportunities for success. Give your child age-appropriate tasks she can complete on her own. Having done so will give her a sense of pride and help build a “can do” mentality.
3. Show your children that you have faith in their goodness and in their abilities. This is a matter of language choice. For example, if your toddler, out of frustration, hits another child, you might say, “You naughty girl! How can you be so mean! I can’t believe you hit him! You’re in big trouble!” Or, you could say, “You got frustrated and hit him. It’s not ok to hit. I know you didn’t mean to hurt him. How can you express your frustration in different ways?”
4. Spend time together. A vital part of having a healthy self-concept is feeling loved and valued. Spend this time doing something fun and enjoyable for both of you, and avoid criticisms or lectures during this quality time.
5. Support your child’s interests. Learn what your child is interested in and support him in mastering that skill or accomplishing his desired level of achievement. Feeling competent and good at something grows a positive self-concept.
6. Set reasonable rules and enforce them with lovingkindness. Your rules should be age-appropriate and clear. These help your child to feel safe and learn how to manage herself. However, enforcing them with a heavy hand when your child steps out of bounds can actually erode the self-concept. It’s important to make sure your child knows that mistakes are a part of life and doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. When giving consequences, keep your child’s dignity in mind.
7. Help your child to manage his emotions and work out problems. This is why problem-solving is such a big part of positive parenting. When children learn to solve their own problems, they build confidence and, therefore, a positive self-concept. Learning to manage emotions is key to having the ability to step back from a situation and view it objectively.
8. Maintain a connected relationship. Being connected keeps the lines of communication open, and this is especially important as your child grows into adolescence. Knowing that she has you to talk to, that you will listen without casting out immediate judgment and you will take her feelings seriously, will help her to feel supported, safe, and important.
9. Give her the opportunity to explore her environment, ask questions without feeling like a nuisance, and engage in make-believe play activities. Children are curious and imaginative, and we must be careful not to squash those traits. To nurture curiosity and imagination, allow ample time for free play and exploration.
10. Acknowledge effort and offer encouragement. Children need to know that first place isn’t the goal, but that personal best is a win, no matter what place that lands them. As she grows, her own self-evaluation will become important to her self-concept, and she needs to learn how to emphasize her strengths and accomplishments, even if there is no trophy in the end.
A healthy self-concept is the foundation for the positive development and the over-all well-being of a child. When a child has a healthy self-concept, he sees himself as being loved, loving, and valuable, and that’s what we all want for our children.
Help Your Child Know How to Be Himself
To help your child find himself, first, BE YOURSELF. Listen and observe. Give her feedback about what you see in terms of what she is good at, what seems to make her feel happy, what traits seem to come naturally. In this way, you help her build a solid sense of self from the beginning, so that she is not afraid to follow her own drummer, and rarely falls into the self-esteem destroying trap of comparing herself with others.
Opportunities for building self-esteem abound. For example, when your child expresses admiration for someone (a teacher, sports figure, super-hero), you can ask him, curiously, “What is it about him you admire the most?” Open-ended questions help the child clarify in his own mind what his opinions, desires, goals, and wishes may be.
Though this post is about young children, it really goes for your kids always. Even as adults, they’ll count on you to listen and continue to give them positive feedback about their positive behavior and not flip out about what you perceive to be negative.
© 2015 Vimala McClure
“Seeking the ‘railings’ he needs to feel secure, a child will continue to test a caregiver until boundaries are clearly stated. Power struggles are a necessary part of the development of ‘self’ for the child; however, the outcome must be that the child knows that the adult is in charge. Children do not usually admit this, but they do not…