Are you concerned about the state of the world? So am I. What can we do? For me, it comes back to kids. The sooner we all start concerning ourselves with the emotional well-being of children, the better. Healthy, well-adjusted kids become healthy well adjusted adults. The world and all that is happening to it is a direct reflection of the people who live here, and how healthy we are. Obviously, the emotional wellness of our leaders is important. But, systems get built and leaders get elected because we the people support and elect them. Healthy people will be more likely to elect healthy leaders and demand a just society. Everyone’s emotional well-being is important.
So, why children then? Because childhood is the key time in terms of development. The early childhood environment is crucially important. It shapes one’s emotional health for years to come. Just as the environment for a seedling dictates it’s growth potential, the same can be said for children. Are we providing our kids with environments to thrive and grow…into BIG generous people with BIG generous ideas? Or do we unwittingly stunt their growth? I can’t think of any parent who would consciously choose to stunt their children’s growth or purposefully provide them with an unhealthy environment.
Are we aware that there is a choice to be made? I discovered that there is a choice. If I didn’t consciously choose the way I wanted to be, then I parented on auto-pilot. And my autopilot wasn’t so steady. My instincts weren’t always the best. So, what should I choose then? What path should I take? I decided that the everyday interactions I have with my children dictated the environment in my home. This one thing has the greatest impact on what my child learns from me. When I realized this, it sank in deep. It was not a great feeling. Flashing in front of me were all the interactions, all the ways that I had been that were not healthy. I decided I had to do better.
So what is emotional well-being and why is it important?
Emotional wellness involves being aware of and accepting of our feelings… being able to constructively share these feelings. It involves having a strong sense of self, a positive attitude, and being able to deal with disappointments and learn from mistakes. So, where do we learn this? Childhood is an important time for learning about ourselves, how we feel and what we are capable of. We are more likely to experience emotional well-being when we feel accepted, loved, and valued for being who we are. However, I’m not sure I was doing that for my kids. I looked at the interactions I was having with my kids and wondered if was inadvertently sending them the wrong messages. At the time, I didn’t even know I was doing it. I thought I was just parenting, trying to get my kids to behave. Like I said though, I was parenting on auto-pilot. In my attempts at getting my kids to behave, I was sending them a message that I wanted them to be different than who they were. I was teaching them to ignore or downplay their own emotions. I was also teaching them that their emotions were not acceptable or that they had to change in order to please me. Here are some examples of how I would do that:
- Telling my child not to be sad or not to cry. “You’re okay. You’re not a baby.”
- Telling my child not to be scared. “Buck up. You need to be tougher”
- Trying to distract my child when sad or scared.
- Questioning and diminishing the value of my child’s emotions. “Why are you even upset right now? There is no reason for it”
- Over-praising to coax my child into being obedient
- Manipulating my child into being happy. “We won’t do X if you don’t stop being difficult.”
- Trying to trick my child into believing that she likes something that she doesn’t
- Isolating or ignoring my child until he/she behaves as I want
- Telling my child I don’t care what he/she is feeling
- Comparing my child to another so that he/she complies… “Why can’t you be more like…”
- Threatening my child to behave differently. “I’m going to get really angry if you don’t…”
- Physically forcing my child to do something against his will.
There is a cost to treating our kids like this. I believe this way of parenting undermines emotional well-being. I realized that if I continued this way, I could start doing some serious damage. If I repeatedly downplayed, attempted to change, or got mad at their emotions, I risked either alienating my kids or making them feel deficient. I have seen and I have felt what it feels like to feel deficient. It doesn’t result in being BIG and generous. It results in being small, defensive, blaming, overcompensating, lacking trust, lacking empathy… among other things. I didn’t want this. I didn’t want my kids feeling bad for feeling how they felt. I didn’t want them to be confused about who they were.
I want my children to be their own people, with their own ideas and own feelings, self aware and self confident. I wanted to support them in being who they wanted to be, not who I wanted them to be. I wanted my kids to thrive, not to be stunted. I imagined a future for my kids where they felt so confident and secure that they grew up to be generous, humble, trusting and optimistic. I at least wanted to give my kids the best chance at achieving emotional well-being. I decided that my new mission was to help my kids become the best versions of themselves that they could be. For me, this started with accepting my kids for who they were and not wanting them to be any different.
I could be simplifying emotional well-being and the influence that parents have. Maybe I’m way off. Maybe I’m not.
All of this doesn’t mean we can’t be human, that we’ll ruin our kids if we get angry or annoyed, or that we can’t make mistakes. We will all make mistakes. But for me, I wasn’t even aware of what I was doing, or the messages I was sending. The messages we send within each home, within each classroom, have big impacts on children and what they believe to be true about themselves and the world. How we speak to kids, how we treat them, shapes their views of themselves and the world.
We all have our own challenges as parents. As far as I can see, the biggest thing I can work on and the biggest thing I can do for my children (and the world) is to treat them in a way that lets them know that they are loved, respected, and accepted for just who they are. It’s up to each parent and educator to look at their own challenges and blind spots, and to look at ways they might improve. For me and a lot of other people I know, paying attention to what you are saying and how you are saying it is a good place to start.
The equation is pretty straight forward. If we want a healthy world, we need to start with healthy people.
hi n.d.–i will try to leave a reply again…i am registered with word press and hopefully i don’t forget my password…
I agree that how we say things and what we do are powerful influences, so very powerful. I just asked an ece (early childhood education) class why do we tell a toddler “you’re okay” when they have fallen and are crying. Crying does seem to indicate that a child is hurt or scared but we do automatically say “you’re okay”. Are we reassuring ourselves when we say that or are we signalling our impatience with the crying? Everything we do is a message…our words, our actions, our tone/attitude.
But parents are also people with their own baggage and children will become parents with baggage as well. While we hope that we can be transparent and careful with our words life is sometimes overwhelming. When life is stressful it can be difficult to choose our actions thoughtfully. Also children are part of this process. We can choose our words carefully and apologize and challenge ourselves to be aware of our actions, but we cannot know how a child hears or processes what we do and say.
I guess, in a somewhat inarticulate manner ,I am trying to say that parents have a huge responsibility, but children are complex and competent people. I think that they are often able to take what we say and read our intentions and make more sophisticated decisions than we often give them credit for and they are forgiving (as you yourself have said). It is a relationship that goes both ways, each partner influencing the other. It is a complex entanglement.
So there is a tension between being a careful, thoughtful and reflective parent and an authentic one that sometimes makes big mistakes (as you acknowledge in your writing about apologies). How we handle our mistakes is also a lesson. Sometimes it is hard to be a good parent. That said, it is key to be a parent who acts in a generous and welcoming manner.
I worry that parents feel guilty and that they worry about all that they do…I do believe that children need to feel their parent’s love, that children feel that they are a sparkle in their parent’s eye, that children see their parent as a resource….but even if that does not happen children can still find their way and become strong, resilient and interesting people.
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