Read an Excerpt
Our Culture's Oversight
For decades psychologists have focused on mental illness and its cure. But the pervasiveness of psychological disorders is so extensive that there simply are not enough professional people to handle the afflicted. One study of 175,000 people in New York City showed that only 18.5 percent were free of the symptoms of mental illness. The number who limp through life in inner turmoil and whose potentials are mired in unbealthy defenses is of epidemic proportions. Neurotic hangups have become a way of life.
This is a staggering indictment of an unfortunate oversight in our culture: we parents are not trained for our job. Vast sums are spent to teach academic and vocational skills, but the art of becoming a nurturing parent is left to chance and a few scattered classes. And yet, paradoxically, we regard children as our most important national resource!
We turn freely to the medical and educational professions to check on our children's physical and intellectual progress. But for guidance on nurturing children to emotional health, we are left largely on our own. Even when symptoms appear, many parents regard consulting a psychologist as an admission of defeat. It is a last ditch resort.
The discrepancy between our valuing children on the one hand and our failure to give parents specific training for their job on the other hand seems to be based on the assumption that if you are a human being you should know how to raise one. But, becoming a parent does not automatically confer upon any of us the knowledge and skills to raise youngsters who are confident and steady and able to live as fully-functioning persons who lead meaningful lives. In short, preventing mental illness has not been given its proper emphasis. Yet, prevention remains our best hope for alleviating the high incidence of emotional disorder.
Most of us do our best, but much of the time we simply fly by the seat of our pants. The fact remains, however, that we, as well as our children, have to live with the results of our unintentional mistakes. And these mistakes have a way of being passed on to future generations. The impact of our culture's oversight is to some degree felt by all of us.
In our search for guidelines we parents have turned to the many books available on child-rearing. But here we find the important issues facing us treated on the whole as separate, isolated topics. We have not been given a cohesive, basic framework--the child's self-esteem--into which we may place each important facet of living with children.
This book gives just such a framework. Here is a new way of looking at child development: seeing all growth and behavior against the backdrop of the child's search for identity and self-respect. Step by step, you will be shown specifically how to build a solid sense of self-worth in your child. Then, your youngster is slated for personal happiness in all areas of his life. Unless you fully understand the nature of the human fabric and work with it, you travel blindly and may pay the price.
This book has been written because of my firm conviction, born of twenty-five years' work in psychology and education as well as from my experiences as a mother, that parenthood is too important for the "by-guess-and-by-golly" approach. Awareness of the facts can help you discharge your responsibilities toward those entrusted to your care, give you confidence as a parent, and point the way to your own personal development.
Over the years, parents in my classes have reported exciting changes in themselves and their children as they began to apply some of the ideas in this book. They have made statements such as the following about their experiences:
"This way of seeing children's growth has given me new confidence. I find I am a freer person, not so afraid of the responsibility of parenthood."
"Our whole family has become much closer and there is far less conflict. As my attitudes changed, so much smoothed out at home."
"I'm more relaxed and patient--even my husband has noticed it."
"I've learned to see myself and my children in a new light; I feel so much more understanding. It has brought my husband and me closer together indirectly."
"I've learned to live with my children instead of in spite of them!"
"As a father, I thought it was ridiculous to have a class about raising kids. I never realized how blind I've been. A whole new world has been opened to me. I only wish I'd known all this before I had children."
The evidence is strong. Knowing what you are doing and having a basic framework as a guide can help you live with your child so that he is emotionally healthy. Then, you don't need to worry; he has his feet on solid ground.
The fact that you are reading this book says that you care about your youngsters and your relationship with them. It suggests that you want your intentions for them to be fully-functioning persons to materialize. This caring, coupled with your interest in reaching out for new ideas, heads both you and your children in the direction of positive growth.
The Basis Of Emotional Health
Dreams and realities
You doubtless had a lot of notions about how you would handle your youngsters long before you had any. But behind them was dedication: you were determined to do a good job. Most of us take parenthood seriously; in a very real sense, we "go for broke." And then reality thuds against our plans. What looked so simple turns out to be far more complex.
No matter that they come in small packages; children touch off large-sized emotions in us. Joy, sureness, and delight intermingle with worry, guilt, and doubt. Fatigue and frustration come along in good measure. You brave dawdling and messes and torrents of "No's," and the next day it's pinching and tattling and who gets the phone. New sets of problems--they change but never end. There's no turning back.
Regardless, you strive to do your best. All along the way you invest heavily in caring, time, energy, and money. You spare no effort--proper food and clothes, attractive toys, the right medical care, and a constant "taxi circuit" to provide every advantage. Maybe you even scrimp for college and extra insurance.
In spite of good intentions and heartfelt efforts, however, some of you find your youngster not turning out as you would like. He is underachieving, emotionally immature, rebellious, or unduly withdrawn. Maybe he goes around with youngsters who are up to no good. "How can my child be having problems when I've done so much and tried so hard?" is a question bedeviling many a well-intentioned parent.
Even if your children are not having problems, hearing about the rising rates of juvenile delinquency, dope addiction, dropouts, venereal disease, and illegitimacy hardly lowers your anxiety level. A nagging uneasiness intermittently pokes its way into your consciousness to make you wonder how to keep your youngsters off such tortured paths. At odd moments uncertainty seeps in: "Am I doing a good job?" "Should I spank, reason, or ignore?" "What do I do now?" Those big ideas--those sure convictions--blur and fade.
Reality can make you lose confidence as a parent. But, regardless, you hold on to the dream of what your child could become. How can you make your dream come true?
The crucial ingredient
If you are like most parents, your hopes for your children are based on more than their avoiding nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, or delinquency. You want life's positives for them: inner confidence, a sense of purpose and involvement, meaningful, constructive relationships with others, success at school and in work. Most of all--happiness. What you want is clear. Your uncertainties are more often wrapped around how to help them to these goals. We parents hunger for a basic rule of thumb as a guide--particularly during moments of stress and confusion.
Today, enough evidence has accumulated to give you just such a formula: if your child has high self-esteem, he has it made. Mounting research shows that the fully-functioning child (or adult) is different from the person who flounders through life.
The difference lies in his attitude toward himself, his degree of self-esteem.
What is self-esteem? It is how a person feels about himself. It is his over-all judgment of himself--how much he likes his particular person.
High self-esteem is not a noisy conceit. It is a quiet sense of self-respect, a feeling of self-worth. When you have it deep inside, you're glad you're you. Conceit is but whitewash to cover low self-esteem. With high self-esteem you don't waste time and energy impressing others; you already know you have value.
Your child's judgment of himself influences the kinds of friends he chooses, how he gets along with others, the kind of person he marries, and how productive he will be. It affects his creativity, integrity, stability, and even whether he will be a leader or a follower. His feelings of self-worth form the core of his personality and determine the use he makes of his aptitudes and abilities. His attitude toward himself has a direct bearing on how he lives all parts of his life. In fact, self-esteem is the mainspring that slates every child for success or failure as a human being.
The importance of self-esteem in your child's life can hardly be overemphasized. As a parent who cares you must help your youngsters to a firm and wholehearted belief in themselves.
Two basic needs
Strong self-respect is based on two main convictions:
"I am lovable,"
("I matter and have value because I exist.")
"I am worthwhile."
("I can handle myself and my environment with competence. I know I have something to offer others.")
Each child, though thoroughly unique, has the same psychological needs to feel lovable and worthy. Nor do these needs end with childhood. You and I have them, and they will be with us until the day we die. Meeting these needs is as essential for emotional well-being as oxygen is for physical survival. Each of us, after all, is our own lifelong roommate. The one person you cannot avoid, no matter how hard you try, is you. And so it is with your child. He lives most intimately with himself, and it is of the utmost importance for his optimal growth, as well as a meaningful and rewarding life, that he respect himself.
At this point you may say, "But this doesn't concem me because I love my child and think he is worthwhile." But wait. Notice the prescription does not say, "If you love your child." It says, "If the child feels loved." And there is a big difference between being loved and feeling loved.
Oddly enough, many parents are aware they love their children, but somehow their youngsters fail to get the message. Such parents have not been able to communicate their love. The seven basic ingredients that permit love to be felt by a child will be discussed in detail in Part II; the important thing to understand at this point is:
It is the child's feeling about being loved or unloved that affects how he will develop.
As it is with love, so it is with feeling worthwhile. You must know how the message that he is competent and has something to offer others gets across. Then it, too, can become an integral part of his self-picture.
If the most crucial ingredient of mental health is high self-esteem, where does it come from? Stanley Coopersmith's study*, among others, indicates that this characteristic is not related to family wealth, education, geographical living area, social class, father's occupation, or always having mother at home. It comes instead from the quality of the relationships that exist between the child and those who play a significant role in his life.
Every normal infant is born with the potential for psychological health. But whether that potential flourishes depends on the psychological climate lived in. To know whether the climate surrounding your child nurtures or withers, you must understand:
1. how high self-esteem is built;
2. how a child's self-view affects behavior;
3. what price a child pays when self-esteem is low, and
4. what you can do to foster high self-esteem.
These issues are the basis of Part I, The Phenomenon of the Mirrors.
Once you understand the process by which self-esteem comes about, you need to be aware of the specific ingredients that permit a child to conclude, "I am lovable." This material is discussed in Part II, The Climate of Love.
Then, to understand how a child builds a sense of mastery and competence--those feelings that feed the sense of worthwhileness--you need familiarity with the tasks of selfhood, those specific way-stations of growth that affect self-esteem. When you work with a child on his psychological assignments, you help him conclude he has worth. The steps of normal growth and their relationship to self-esteem are examined in Part III, The Journey of Self.
In the remaining sections we'll consider:
1. the influence that feelings have on self-esteem, along with positive ways to handle them;
2. the influence of different approaches to discipline on self-esteem, as well as constructive methods of discipline;
3. the impact of self-esteem on intelligence and creativity, together with ways to foster mental development, and finally
4. the influence that sex education has on self-esteem
Understanding what makes your child tick gives you a tool to check the climate you provide. It can pinpoint areas that need change. More important, it goes a long way toward saving both you and your child from the results of trial and error parenting.
The weight of recent research suggests that your good intentions as a parent have a greater chance of becoming reality if you live with your children so that they are quietly glad they are who they are. None of us can afford to be ignorant or casual about a youngster's most important characteristic--his degree of self-respect.
Helping children build high self-esteem is the key to successful parenthood.
* Coopersmith, Stanley. The Antecedents of Self-Esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1967.