Established research tells us that children get their sense of self-worth from their parents. Research tells us this and we know it to intuitively be true—children are not born knowing what to think of themselves, they take their cues from their parents. In a simplistic sense, this is why different children have varying degrees of self-esteem–because their parental experiences vary widely up and down the spectrum.
Given that we know that children take their cues from their parents it must also be true that there is a certain amount of unspoken communication that flows between us and our children, where children get their messaging from their parents and, more importantly, they draw conclusions about what it might mean.
Let me explain.
Take an extreme case of a parent who habitually and repeatedly communicates to their child that they do not have time for their child—they are bothered when interrupted, barely look up from whatever they are doing when the child has something important (to them) they want to share. The conclusion that the child will ultimately, and irrationally come to is that they must not be important.
(Remember that in the eyes of the child, the Parent’s word is the only one that matters when it comes to the concept of Self).
Narrowing the Focus from the Macro View to the Micro View
So children eventually conclude that when a parent consistently does not pay attention to them/have time for them, it means they must not be important. As a parent I knew this to be true but one day a thought hit me that stopped me dead in my tracks, took my breath away, and changed the way I parent forever.
We know that there is non-verbal information that children pick up on that ultimately tells them their parent has no time for them. We know too that the ability to pick up on non-verbal communication starts developing at a young age (research suggests there is non-verbal communication even infants pick up on).
Thinking about it that way—that on the macro level, that children ultimately pick up on macro patterns is one way of looking at it. But the day I was sure I was savvily multi-tasking by answering “ok” while not looking up from the computer while my daughter breathlessly told me about the question she answered correctly in school, and she wisely walked away and said “I guess you don’t really care” was the moment it all came together. The thought that eventually stopped me dead in my tracks was this:
We know that all kinds of subtle body language communication takes place between humans (science seems to understand only a small portion of how it works). We also know that (both research and intuition tells us) children are quite capable of interpreting the messaging.
What if they know each and every time we aren’t paying attention to them? Given that they walk away from parental interactions drawing conclusions about themselves, who’s to say when conclusions about their self-worth solidify?
Readers with children might by now be thinking “children want/need things constantly. It’s not always appropriate to stop whatever you are doing and tend to every whim of theirs”. Of course that is true, and an important part of parental messaging is that there are times a child must wait to get what they want.
But what changed for me in my approach is that in an instance I have decided I will be responsive to my child, I will in fact be responsive to them. If not, I will explain that I am in the middle of something and need a few minutes before I can give him/her my full attention. What I won’t do is take the nebulous middle ground where I pretend to respond and leave the child to their own irrational conclusions about what a collection of similar interactions might mean about him/her.
- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran