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TOPIC TITLE: Often Overlooked Parenting Principles
Created On 7/24/13 5:58 PM
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7/24/13 5:58 PM
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(Originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Mind, Body & Soul)

By Shimmy Feintuch, LMSW

If parenting were a job, it would be the worst job ever. Long hours, bad pay, no recognition. Entry level parenting includes perks like spit-up and stinky diapers; a tenured position earns you criticism and the cold shoulder. Severance comes in the form of requests for money and brief holiday visits.

A dubious profession, this parenting thing. And it seems to be thriving! Most people, I understand, are born of parents. What is the draw to be a parent? Why do so many choose the way of child-rearing despite the fatigue, pain, and expenses?

I believe that the desire to become a parent comes from the best of human nature: the desire to give, to love, to nurture. There is no other job in this universe with as much potential for giving, and for personal growth as well.

And yet, with all its import, parenting is unregulated. No professional schools nor licensing boards exist to train and assure quality control. Continuing education credits and certificates in parenting adorn the walls of no parent at all. Parents endure with blood, sweat, tears, pure guts, sheer willpower, and a healthy dose of prayer.

In the mental health profession we know that there is never only one “right” way to do things. Normal - that absurd, ubiquitous word - is so much more inclusive than we may previously have thought. Below, I present some ideas, not as the right or only way, but as a suggestion, as food for thought. I hope you find that these ideas, often overlooked, are truly at the core of parenting.

The Mind of a Child:

Our minds are always busy, making meaning of what we experience and storing that information for future reference. For example, if there is traffic on the way to work, you may come up with “Second Avenue is not the way to go during rush hour”. The next time you travel during rush hour, your experience can inform your behavior: you may choose to take Fifth Avenue, or better yet, the train.

Often, these conclusions include ideas about ourselves, such as “I should have left earlier, I’m so lazy”. These thoughts bouncing around our heads are called self-talk. If you do that, you’re not crazy - everyone does it!

Now, here’s the important point: our ideas about ourselves are less based on reality - the traffic of our external world - than on our perception, what is happening in our minds. Using the example above: The Second Avenue situation can trigger thoughts ranging from “I’m always late, I’m such a bad person” to “It would have been better to leave earlier, but I’m not a bad person because of it”. Of these snippets of self talk, one is significantly more charitable than the other. The fact that there can be such disparate reactions to one situation shows that our ideas about ourselves are based solely on our internal reactions to the world around us. As I once heard someone say, “My problem is between my ears”.

Like adults, children catalogue and characterize everything that happens in their lives to try to make sense of the world. If anything, children are more susceptible to negative views of themselves because their views are not yet fully formed. How can we help our children be charitable to themselves in their own minds?

Unconditional Love:

Children view their parents as authorities (as well they should, you might say). Children are very sensitive, and take whatever parents say very seriously. If a parent says something, children perceive it to be true. When children are criticized in a way which attacks their sense of self, they internalize it and believe it.

Say a young girl takes away her brother’s chocolate chip cookie. Her parent says “Bad girl!” to drive the point home - her behavior is wrong. She may hear the message loud and clear, but she takes in something else as well: “I am a bad girl.” I used to say that this plays over and over in the child’s mind, like a tape recorder. Nowadays children’s brains have iPods, but the concept is the same. These words are played again and again until they become part of this young girl’s idea of her self. This is what we call low self-worth, or low self-esteem.

So what can we do? One thing to do is chastise the behavior, not the person. “Don’t take the cookie” tells the child that the behavior is wrong, but that she is still a good person. And she is. There is nothing that a child can do that will make him or her an inherently bad person.

This holds true for positive attention and praise as well. Love of a child should always be unconditional, showing affection, approval, and acceptance based on her basic worth as a human being. If love is conditional - “I love you because you get good grades and you help your Mommy with the housework” - then what happens when a “B” grade, Heaven forbid, shows up on the child’s report card? Or she doesn’t feel like helping Mommy today? The child will presume, without any prompting, that she is no longer worthy of love. She has internalized the knowledge that her worth is conditional.

It bears repeating that our ideas about ourselves are based on perception, not reality. If a child perceives that he is unworthy, the reality doesn’t matter - he has already internalized the idea that his self-worth is conditional. And so it can happen that a child with the most well meaning parents can, unwittingly, be predisposed for low self-esteem.

Let’s take this one step further. If a child internalizes this idea of conditional self-worth - I’m only worthy if I do certain things - then what of this child’s relationship with God? A child’s relationship with his parents serves as a model for relating to God, our Father in Heaven. If I am only worthy or loved when I do certain actions, then what does God, who knows of all my sins, think of me? Surely, He does not approve.

This message can be sobering, even scary. The message that we give our children must be clear: they are loved, always and under all circumstances. Though we disapprove of certain behaviors, that does not touch their parents’ love or the child’s worthiness. Every child should know unequivocally that he is beautiful, worthy, and loved, by his parents and by God as well.

Shimmy Feintuch is a licensed social worker practicing in the New York area. As a therapist, Shimmy currently works with children, adolescents, their parents, and adults struggling with anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other issues. He can be reached at therapy@shimmyfeintuch.com.

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