What is the most important thing in raising children? How do parents unintentionally harm their children?
Raising children is an uncertain experience. We tend to want certainty and structure, but parenting is more about embracing the unknown. Unfortunately, the foundation of uncertainty is the perfect environment for shame and judgment to grow.
Here is how you can set a foundation for raising children that are healthy and wholesome.
Raising Children Is Uncertain Experience
Parenting is wrapped up in doubt, which makes it easy to listen to the fear of not being a good enough parent, and become militant about your chosen methods, or be in constant anxiety about doing the wrong thing. What problems arise as a result of the craving for certainty?
This is characterized by being so attached to our own methods of doing things that we see them as the only way. This is a problem because when we see others doing things in different ways, it causes us to see those different methods as direct criticism of our own–a great recipe for shame. Once we become inflexible, we can’t show up meaningfully, because we’re not able to be present and adapt to changing circumstances.
Being certain of anything to an extreme can cause you to judge others for what you perceive to be “wrong” choices. It plays on your inner doubt, because we tend to only engage in judgment when we don’t have confidence in our own methods. This impedes growth because the fear of not being perfect causes you to focus instead on at least being better than those around you, which can become a vicious shame and judgment cycle.
The ultimate problem with giving in to the craving for certainty is that it sets an unstable foundation for raising children, and it increases a parent’s fear of making irreparable mistakes.
How Parents Unintentionally Harm Their Children
Children, from a survival standpoint, are deeply vulnerable. They are dependent on those caring for them. Shame causes children to feel unlovable, which threatens their sense of, not just emotional, but physical safety. Under these conditions, for children, shame is trauma. One of the most common ways you can fall short as a parent is by failing to distinguish for your children the difference between “you are bad” and “you did something bad.”
This distinction is important because we are not our behavior. Children are even more vulnerable than adults to internalizing negative self-talk, which makes it crucial to help them understand that how they behave is not a reflection of who they are, but rather a tool for understanding how they feel, which allows them to access the power to choose how they react to how they feel. Example:
- “you lied” versus “you’re a liar”: Lying is not a characteristic, it’s a changeable behavior. Labeling someone a liar facilitates an attitude of defeat, and limits their ability to demonstrate better behavior in the future. When you do this with your children, you corrode their sense of worthiness.
In a similar vein, one of the most insidious things you can pass to your children is perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the drive to perform to the standards of others rather than your own.
- Example: you want to go to college for art, but your parents always wanted you to be a professional athlete, so instead you go to college on a sports scholarship and study business.
Perfectionism cultivates people-pleasing behavior, the need for external approval or validation, and sets the foundation for long-term scarcity mentality. In other words, it creates a breeding ground for chronic, debilitating shame, and prevents the development of self-compassion–a crucial prerequisite to meaningful engagement.
As a parent, it’s tempting to armor yourself. A parent is in a near-constant state of vulnerability, and it’s challenging to navigate. That being said, parents are in the best position to set a child up with a strong sense of self. Your sense of belonging, self-esteem, self-worth, and so on, are most heavily influenced by the environment you grow up in. Specifically, by your experience watching your parents and their behavior. In order to learn compassion and connection, you must be able to first experience them directly from someone else. Raising children that are whole and secure requires that you feel whole and secure yourself.
6 Tools for Raising Wholesome Children
Tool #1—A Strong Belief in Their Worthiness. Without worthiness, children will be deeply vulnerable to shame messages at home, at school, and in the greater community. However, they can’t learn it on their own. Raising children with worthiness requires that you demonstrate your own worthiness.
Tool #2—A Shame Resilience Practice. Shame resilience is the ability to confront and move through experiences of shame without sacrificing self-worth. Shame resilience can be developed in your children through open, honest dialogue about shame. Children whose parents refrain from using shame as a disciplinary tool, and instead teach self-compassion, often have a better foundation for shame resilience.
Tool #3—The Ability to Cultivate Hope. While emotions are an important component of hopefulness, hope is more of a thought process, action, or mentality than a feeling. Hope is characterized by the ability to identify goals we desire to achieve, the ability to see a pathway to achieving those goals, and belief in your ability to achieve those goals. Hope is learned. Those who learn hope are given the space to struggle. As a result of struggle, they develop confidence in their ability to overcome adversity. You can teach your children hopefulness by engaging in relationships with them that are reliable, supportive, and have healthy boundaries.
Tool #4: The Ability to Distinguish Individual Experience From Others’ Expectations. A great way to do this is to teach the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging.” Fitting in is actually a barrier to belonging. It is adapting your behavior to the wants and expectations of others in order to gain approval. It requires you to alter who you are to be accepted.
- Example: you are a kind, gentle person by nature, but the people you want to fit in with make mean jokes, are judgmental, and so on. In order to fit in, you compromise your nature, and begin making the same jokes and judgments. You are accepted, but you don’t belong.
To belong is to feel a deep sense of being connected to something greater than yourself. You access belonging when you are true to yourself, regardless of whether or not others find that acceptable, and being true to yourself allows you to connect with those who will accept you unconditionally.
- Example: you are a kind and gentle person by nature. The “cool” kids are judgmental and make mean jokes. You choose to continue being yourself. You don’t become friends with the “cool” kids, but you do become friends with people who value your kindness and gentleness. You may not fit in, but you belong.
Tool #5: The Foundation for Healthy Striving Habits. Earlier, you learned the negative impact of perfectionism on children. You can replace perfectionism with the healthy striving, and that will facilitate motivation for growth. Healthy striving is not based on catering to the expectations of others, but on the drive to be the best version of yourself, as motivated by your own standards.
- Example: your parents want you to be an athlete, but you’re passionate about art, so you apply to the most prestigious art colleges, and/or dedicate yourself to honing your craft.
Tool #6: The Ability to Engage With Guilt Instead of Shame. Guilt is ultimately healthier to engage with than shame, and a better tool to explore with your children. Why? As mentioned in the chapter, the difference between shame and guilt is “I’m bad” (shame) versus “I did something bad” (guilt). Shame impedes action and growth, but guilt facilitates self-awareness and initiative for growth.
- Example of teaching shame: Your child steals a cookie from the grocery store. In shame culture, you tell that child they are a thief, and that thieves are bad. The child doesn’t understand they are separate from their behavior, so they internalize “I am a thief” and “I am bad”. This may cause them to increasingly engage in more stealing, or other poor behaviors as they grow up.
- Example of teaching guilt: Your child steals a cookie from the grocery store. You tell them that was not an appropriate way to behave, that it’s not okay to steal, and then you support them to shift that behavior (perhaps by returning the item together). This cultivates remorse, rather than shame, and remorse motivates you to grow, because you see that it’s possible for there to be a gap between who you are and how you are behaving. The discomfort of that initiates a desire to change.
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- What it means to live Wholeheartedly
- The 3 things you need to feel happy and healthy
- How scarcity and shame prevent you from achieving a Wholehearted life