“Zevvie, you’re such a big boy!” says my kindergartener.
“I AM a big boy!” replies my toddler.
“And you’re funny!”
“I AM funny!”
“And you smell like cheese!”
“I DO smell like cheese!”
This extremely cute episode made me stop, think, and realize something important: what we think of ourselves and how we view ourselves begins in our families. What am I doing, as the mother, to shape how my children see themselves?
My dad gave me a compliment the other day and it was funny how much it affected me. I felt like weeping. Isn’t that silly? I’m a grown woman. My self-esteem does not feel tenuous—most of the time—but it delighted me to my core. When my mom says things like, ”You’re doing a great job!” it means something. When I don’t talk to my sisters for awhile, I feel restless. It’s as if these most basic relationships are my touchstone, my truest mirror. These are the people who know if I smell like cheese.
Have you ever, in a heated moment, had that out-of-body experience when you hear your voice from the perspective of your kids? What about the accompanying sinking pit in your stomach as you think, “Did I just say that?” This feeling is very familiar to me.
And then there are the ones you hear coming back to you. My daughter’s current favorite phrase is, “When that happens, I won’t feel sorry for you!” Guess where she gets that fine example of empathy from?
The very excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk has helped me have less of these moments. I reread it once in awhile, and it helps me shift away from labeling my kids and toward naming the emotion. So when my toddler slaps me because he has to put on his shoes, I can remember not to say “Hey! You’re not nice! Knock it off!” I don’t want to give him that image of himself. Instead I say, “You must be mad. You don’t want to put on your shoes. But you can’t hit, Mommy. Hit your leg instead and I’ll still know you’re mad.”
How we talk to our kids makes a big difference. If we are too saccharin—”You’re the greatest artist ever!”—how can they trust us? Yet, if we belittle them, who will build them up? On the playground, I’ve heard parents say, “Oh, you think you’re so smart!” “Oh, I see, you’re being little Miss Sass again!” “You are soooo naughty!” “What are you doing? You are so dumb!”
Those words, that tone of voice, echoes. It becomes that inner critic, the voice in someone’s head that comments on the events of the day.
I know this because my inner critic sounds a lot like my mother’s voice. That’s why I have such a nice one. She tells me to get out of bed and get the blood moving. But she never says I’m worthless, I’ll never amount to anything. She usually reminds me to not spend money on things I don’t need (actually, that’s my dad). But most importantly, I know my parents love me and think I’m a good person. This is a real gift, one that I hope to pass along to my kids.
At times this responsibility feels like a real burden. So I remind myself that it is not only my voice that becomes my child’s inner voice, but the voices of the older brothers and sisters, teachers, coaches, grandparents—all those wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) people in his life who will guide him on his journey to being a self-sufficient, self-aware adult.
But this I know: I am the first.
Zev is potty training so we are spending a lot of one-on-one time in the bathroom. And you know, sitting for a five-minute breather while I keep him company is kind of nice. So I was sitting close by and he was staring at me with that “I-might-be-pooping-or-I-might-be-staring-into-space“ kinda look when he said, “Mommy, I see Zevvie in your eye!” I asked him to repeat himself and he said, “I see me in your eye!” I realized he was talking about his reflection in the depths of my iris. He was smiling at what he saw there. I’m so glad. I pray he always loves the way he is reflected in my eyes.
QUESTION: What are you doing to deliberately shape the way your children see themselves?
CHALLENGE: Think of your interactions with your child over the last couple of days. Identify which ones built and which ones diminished your child’s self image. How could you change some of the interactions that need improvement?
Image of boy provided by Amanda Hamilton-Roos.
Feature Image by Microsoft Office Clip Art with graphics by Julie Finlayson.