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Hearing is Believing
How Words can Make or Break Our Kids
By Elisa Medhus
New World LibraryCopyright © 2004 Elisa Medhus
All rights reserved.
THE EVOLUTION of ADULT-CHILD COMMUNICATION
The relationship between children and adults has changed profoundly over the centuries. Fortunately, most of the changes have been positive. For instance, for several generations, indigent children were exploited as cheap labor — a fact my own kids occasionally try to wield against me at chore time. Their value beyond laborers on farms or in factories was largely unrecognized. Although children from affluent families were spared this abuse, they were still looked upon not as unique individuals but as vessels for the passage of the family name, power, and fortune. Regardless of socioeconomic status, throughout history children have most often been perceived as burdens, necessary evils, and nuisances, tolerated only when they answered an adult's needs or wants.
During the mid-1900s, the parent-child relationship was an autocratic one: the father was the authoritarian dictator and the child, his obedient subject. The mother was the nurturing housekeeper whose jurisdiction in that dictatorship was limited. Aside from vacuuming, baking, and alphabetizing the spice rack, her main function in life was to utter the same two phrases over and over: "Ask your father" and "Wait until your father gets home." Overall, adult-child interaction was based on the philosophy that "children are to be seen and not heard" and characterized mostly by one-way military-style commands and judgments, lengthy lectures, and other didactic explanations that (as agony levels go) rivaled any instrument of torture. My husband is one of the last vestiges of that era. There is some electrical circuit still buried deep in his brain that must have been spared the giant wave of family democratization where, in a mass mutiny, autocrats were ousted from power and replaced with lenient negotiators, ambassadors, and mediators — no sooner does he hear the words, "Papa, can I ...?" than he sounds out a knee-jerk "NO!"
During the '70s and '80s, adults focused on pampering the personal needs and dreams that were squelched during their dictatorial upbringing. This self-absorption led some parents to neglect their relationships with their children, ushering in the era of the latchkey child, the "unparented generation." On the one hand, these children weren't subjected to commands and controls, but on the other, they were deprived of the nurturing, support, and guidance so crucial to growing up whole. They may just as well have been raised by wolves.
In the '90s, the adult-child relationship took a turn for the better. Suddenly, society regarded children as the center of the universe, and family took precedence over work. Changing tables popped up in public restrooms — both men's and women's. Family entertainment options sprouted up in every neighborhood. Today, Las Vegas has even blended its sleaze appeal with a Disneyesque tone. This cultural shift from adult- to youth-centric transformed the adult-child relationship from an oppressive dictatorship to a shaky democracy. Now, grown-ups must almost ask permission to discipline children. They vacillate from being the child's manager to a contestant in a popularity contest where the child is the only judge. For the most part, communications are limited to negotiations, pleadings, long-winded explanations, and other futile and exhausting two-way exchanges.
Amid the ever-evolving adult-child relationship, however, the two mistakes I mentioned in the introduction are the constants that have remained steadfast for generations:
* We raise children to make their choices based on outside approval.
* We hinder the natural development of their reasoning abilities.
These parenting errors have arisen because of the conflict between our pack tendencies and our reasoning abilities. Let me explain:
We are driven by some of the same instincts that shape the behavior of pack animals, such as wolves. Don't panic — I'm not referring to howling at the moon, marking our territory, or rolling around in roadkill. Instead, the common bond we share with pack species is the strong instinctive urge to belong to a group — to feel accepted by others. Indeed, our society is the mother of all packs. We have all sorts of physical and financial standards that make up the general consensus of how success should be defined. Unspoken social mores tell us adults that we stand a better chance of being accepted if we're wealthy, famous, good looking, surrounded by material luxuries, working in a prestigious career, living in a big house, or, ideally, all of the above. If we want to be accepted, we're expected to comply with those standards to the fullest extent possible, and the better we comply, the higher our rank in the pack's pecking order.
Unlike wolves, however, we have reasoning skills. We humans are uniquely placed as the only living creatures capable of using our own free will to decide how to deal with our instincts; we can choose between constructive and destructive ways of doing so. The best way to satisfy the urge to belong is to come up with some unique contribution or carve out some meaningful role that benefits the pack (in our case, society at large) while still honoring our personal moral principles. Those who do this are often rewarded with acceptance. In other words, they become "pack-worthy." Once stamped with the pack's seal of approval, these individuals are free to make choices according to their own values and standards, rather than following the pack's without question. They reflect on the pros, cons, alternatives, and potential consequences of each action before deciding what to do. Any negative influences examined through this reasoning process are discarded as useless or harmful. Any positive influences are reflected in choices that add something valuable to their lives. And all this is done under complete, conscious control. The ultimate decision, therefore, is the individual's. People who make choices this way are self-directed. They use their own value system as an internal beacon to guide them safely through every influence of the outside world — negative or positive.
Unfortunately, most adults don't fall into this category, but are under the hypnotic spell of the pack's standards and values rather than their own, forever running in life's rat race, pursuing dreams fashioned by others — dreams that are often far beyond their reach. When everyone strives to meet the same expectations instead of creating their own unique niche, we all have to vie for the most favorable spots in the pecking order. Thus, everyone is sorted into two groups: winners and losers. Naturally, many of us would do just about anything to avoid being a loser, even if that means casting aside the values we once treasured in favor of those set by the group. Furthermore, because of this overly focused drive to be better than as many other people as we can, we disregard other essentials that are crucial to making sound choices: lessons learned from past experiences (either others' or our own), our repertoire of strengths and weaknesses, and new ideas born of our own creative thought.
When we rely on the pack to make choices for us, we don't regularly think for ourselves. Over time, our entire reasoning mechanism atrophies from disuse. Without the strong inner compass of our reasoning skills, we easily succumb to temptation and impulse, replacing reason with inner dishonesty tactics like excuses, self-deceit, and rationalizations. Once we abandon clear and conscious thought, we almost have to rely on others to think for us. A vicious cycle is born wherein the drive for approval hinders reasoning, and poor reasoning in turn makes us more dependent on the approval-driven choices of others. In this way, we have become a society that is externally directed.
Consider the effect this has on children. As neophytes in the quest for pack approval, they're just beginning to find and form bonds. Their identities are in the fragile stages of development. Their capacity for judgment is still emerging. Their system of beliefs and values has barely begun to gel. Cast them into a world where they must follow a set of externally derived standards to fulfill their instinct to belong, and all hell breaks loose. From birth, their choices are increasingly motivated by a desire for approval rather than their sense of right and wrong. At some point, their burgeoning identities, and therefore their self-esteems, risk being hijacked and molded by others, including their parents and siblings, their peers, the media, and popular culture. That's all well and good if the influences shaping them are positive, but what if they're not? In some cases, children are at the mercy of value systems that may not have their best interests at heart. An allegiance to these may require them to make choices that betray their fledgling sense of right and wrong. And to protect their own conscience, they may have to be dishonest with themselves on a regular basis. Over time, they construct an elaborate defense system to help convince themselves that each bad choice they make is really okay — a defense system of denial, self-deceit, excuses, blame-shifting, rationalizations, and other tactics of inner dishonesty. Extenuating circumstances can make any poor decision a permissible exception to the moral rule.
Let's see how this works with a specific example. Suppose Brandon shows up on the first day of middle school wearing his usual garb: his plaid shirt is buttoned all the way up and tucked into gray Sans-a-Belt slacks. Thanks to a summer growth spurt, these now high-water pants reveal his glaringly white crew socks. Finish that off with a pair of Hush Puppies, and you've got yourself a walking bully magnet — a middle-school casualty in the making. Before sixth grade, Brandon has considered himself a well-dressed boy. After all, that's what he's always heard from his parents and grandparents. Now, he's the victim of relentless taunts and jeers. To win back the peer approval he always enjoyed in grade school, he has to follow the fashions of the middle-school crowd. Within a couple of months, he's convinced his parents to revamp his wardrobe with skater shoes, spiked black leather bracelets, long, silver wallet chains hanging down to his knees, saggy pants cut six inches too long, and T-shirts emblazoned with Cold Chamber and Nine Inch Nails logos. He justifies his radical transformation as a product of being older — as casting aside babyish fashions, because, after all, he's grown up now. Although these decisions are not immoral or irresponsible, the point is they really aren't his own.
As you can see, kids, like adults, are subjected to enormous social pressure compelling them to follow certain standards set by peer groups and popular culture — and they are perhaps in an even more precarious position than we adults, as their personal moral principles have not been shaped yet. As we will see, this has far-reaching, often alarming repercussions for our youth and our world. As you read these troublesome findings, take heart in knowing that the power is in the hands of all adults, including you, to turn the tide in a healthier direction — or even to turn things around completely. By tweaking our adult-child communication according to the suggestions throughout this book, we can kick the deeply entrenched habit of fostering approval seeking and hindering reasoning in children. And once we do, we become the first generation of adults to reverse the current trend of crumbling morals and spurious values. What better legacy to pass on to our children, our society, and our future.CHAPTER 2
THE CONSEQUENCES of EXTERNAL DIRECTION
What happens to children raised to use approval seeking to guide their choices? What happens when they go into the world without the reasoning skills they need to carefully consider the consequences of those choices? These questions are particularly crucial now, in an age when kids are inundated by more media, peer, and pop-culture influences, through more channels, with greater intensity, and at younger ages than ever before. Thanks to the digital age and the massive globalization it has triggered, unfiltered information flows at scorching speeds from countless sources straight into the ingenuous and unsuspecting minds of today's children and adolescents. When that information comes in the form of harmful messages, the effects can be deep and destructive, taking a toll not only on each child, but also on their families, schools, communities and, ultimately, society, which is victimized by the irresponsible choices these children make. The following are some of the negative repercussions of external direction:
Lower Self-Esteem and Less Self-Confidence
When children seek adult approval, they learn to measure themselves according to the opinions of their parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures rather than objectively assessing themselves. Later, when a peer group becomes their new pack, they rely on peer opinion to figure out what they're worth. Depending on the groups with which children associate — and the amount of teasing that goes on within those groups — peer scrutiny can take a huge toll on their self-esteem and self-confidence.
For example, if a child has a pimple on the tip of his nose, his friends are probably going to point it out to him (as if the half-inch coating of Clearasil cover-up isn't an obvious indication he is already painfully aware of it), and peers who aren't his friends might very well ridicule and taunt him. Whether the teasing is good-natured or not, chances are it makes him feel as though his looks, behavior, and life are being constantly scrutinized under an electron microscope. In many cases, this feeling leads the child to internalize outside opinion, giving rise to an inner judge that shapes his decisions. Once this inner judge is deeply rooted, it's difficult — in fact, nearly impossible — for kids to look upon themselves in an objective light. From there, self-esteem and self-confidence slowly erode.
Fear of Failure
When children see themselves through the eyes of their peers or their inner judge, failure becomes a weapon designed to sabotage their self-worth rather than as a stepping-stone to success, an opportunity to learn something valuable. Think about it: failure is going to frighten only those who fear the ridicule, rejection, criticism, and humiliation from others. And such fear comes about only when kids depend on outside opinion to assess themselves. During my interviews, I asked hundreds of children this question: "If you were shooting hoops in an empty gym and you missed every shot, how would you feel?" Every child claimed they wouldn't be bothered in the least. Most said they'd just keep shooting until they became bored or ran out of time. But, when I asked them how they would feel if a person were sitting in the bleachers reading a book, they all said they'd be too self-conscious to go on. Their fear of humiliation would be so overwhelming, they wouldn't want to stick their necks out and take the risk of "failure."
In most children, this fear eventually becomes internalized once they've experienced enough rejection, ridicule, criticism, and humiliation. From that point on, the very thought of potential failure — even if it won't be witnessed by others — can paralyze them. In other words, they develop a bad case of "failure-phobia," an affliction responsible for the rising epidemic of underachievement in children today.
Once bitten by the failure-phobia bug, the last thing kids want to do is go out on a limb and risk failing. They seek the comfort and security of standing still instead, avoiding anything that involves taking a positive risk. They shy away from learning new languages, taking on new sports, exploring different hobbies, acquiring new skills, asserting themselves, expressing awkward emotions, or making new friends. Although failure-phobic kids may be willing to take self-destructive risks like driving drunk, piercing their tongues, or experimenting with drugs, they balk at taking chances where the goal is a measurement of their abilities or their worth as human beings.
Whenever children are afraid to explore the unfamiliar, to take on new adventures, to take emotional risks, and to learn something new, they deny themselves the opportunity to develop competence in those areas. The results: learned helplessness, a lack of self-reliance, and a low emotional IQ.
Excerpted from Hearing is Believing by Elisa Medhus. Copyright © 2004 Elisa Medhus. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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