Dear Dr. Debbie,
I try to be positive with my children, ages 4 and 7, focusing on “things” that are wrong, and not them. This is because I still sting from my parents’ insults, especially my mother’s. She told me repeatedly that I was sloppy, selfish, unimportant and a liar. While I admit that at times I acted badly, I believe that good parenting protects the self esteem of a child while showing them a better way to behave.
Is there research to back up my belief? Can parents’ words shape how a child behaves – for better or for worse, in childhood and beyond?
Don’t miss last week’s column Why teens don’t help around the house — Good Parenting
Dear Positive Mama,
More than refraining from slinging insults, parents can choose positive words to shower upon their children.
Yes, there is research going back to Sigmund Freud about the internal voice inside each of us that guides a lifetime of behavior. Parents are an extremely potent contributor to how that voice sounds.
What our parents repeatedly say to us and how they treat us form neural pathways of recurring thought patterns about ourselves. Such messages may tell us we are good or bad or ugly.
If messages were not positive in your childhood experience, you have the power to reshape your thoughts about yourself. Research has examined the power of self-affirmations to override negative self-thoughts with intentionally positive ones. Self-affirmations have been found to be useful for adults for weight management, smoking cessation and more.
Human beings are amazingly resilient. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “mind over matter.” Although the brain’s architecture (matter) is built with early relationships and experiences, it is possible to quiet (with your conscious mind) the negative messages lain in childhood. Despite neural pathways that have been built with insults and shame, it is possible to change automatic behaviors that are not in our best interest. The earlier the better, of course.
Here’s a fictitious example of intentionally changing a harsh parental voice with a kinder one. Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel “The Help,” which became a movie in 2011, had the character Aibileen teaching the toddler in her care to repeat after her:
You is kind.
You is smart.
You is important.
Aibileen’s intent was to plant the seeds of a good human being into a child’s growing brain. As Freud hypothesized, the best way to improve the behavior of a grown up is to start when she is a child. Aibileen hoped that this message would become the child’s own message to herself growing up, rather than the negative image projected by the neglectful and negative treatment of her by her own mother.
Our current knowledge about brain development reinforces the importance of positive guidance during the growing years. These are the formative years for thinking about oneself in a positive way so as to behave at our best. In effect, the words and actions of the parent/caregiver become the child’s expectations for himself.
To reverse the alarming trend of labeling almost all children “at risk,” a self-affirmation for children was created by Kids at HopeTM founder, Rick Miller:
I am a kid at hope.
I am talented, smart, and capable of success.
I have dreams for the future and will climb to reach those goals and dreams every day.
The Kids at Hope philosophy begins with making sure that each child has an adult in is or her life who believes and demonstrates that he or she is capable. This evidence of self-worth gets reinforced with the self-affirming pledge each day.
Miller says, “The real power of (positive) self-talk lies in how it changes behavior (for the better).” His follow up studies have demonstrated that self-talk can “train our brain to be positive and hopeful” making children more optimistic, successful and hopeful than those who do not practice it.
Here is a father’s rap version of the positive messages he’d like his children to have about themselves,
Find your own positive words for your children every day. This is a gift of good parenting that your children will take long into their futures.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com