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November 27, 2015 / 15 Kislev, 5776
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If You Belittle Your Kids They Will Be Little

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The new school year is starting and parents across the board are busy getting their children ready for school.  New clothing, books and study aids like calculators have been bought and bus service and car pools organized.  As the year progresses parents will do whatever it takes to help ensure their offspring do well in their Limudei Kodesh and secular studies, including helping with homework or even enlisting a tutor.


            Unfortunately for some, they will unwittingly sabotage the one crucial tool all children – and adults  – must have in order to maximize their potential in all aspects of their lives, whether academic, social or spiritual. In two words: self-esteem.


            Tragically, some parents not only abstain from nurturing a positive self-image in their child, but in fact decimate whatever innate sense of value their son or daughter might have already. What is even more tragic is that these mothers and fathers truly love their children and want them to have happy, successful lives but are oblivious to the fact that their behavior towards their kids might seriously undermine the chance of that happening.       


            The parents I am describing are  either chronically critical of their children, or are physically or emotionally absent – even when they are home. 


 By being overtly critical or withholding deserved praise, parents can unwittingly impart the damaging message to their child that he/she does not measure up; that they are inadequate or incompetent.


“Absent” parents are often preoccupied with their own needs or wants, and while their kids are very special to them  they are not the priority in their life. Both these behaviors  can leave the child with a growing sense of worthlessness and feeling unvalued.


These  loving parents are usually clueless as to the psychologically-crippling impact their words, actions, or lack of them have on their children and would be shocked  to hear  that they  are  being overly critical or  emotionally unavailable.


For  example, a young child loses his favorite teddy or blanket and is inconsolable.  Some parents, because they don’t know better, will not validate his  grief and sense of deep loss but brush it off and tell the heart-broken child, “Stop crying, it was just an old, torn teddy, I’ll get you a new one!”  If that happens often enough, the child might get the message that his feelings aren’t important – and therefore he isn’t. Or as he grows up, he will question his ability to “read” emotional situations or will mistrust his reactions and perhaps shy away from social involvements – to the extent of not getting married.


 Another example is when a child comes home with “big news”: she went down the “big kids” slide in the playground. Her father mutters a “that’s nice” as he continues watching TV or reading his newspaper.  Kids, and of course adults, have an ingrained need to be validated, to have the “ups and downs” in their life acknowledged – especially by the people who count in their lives, whose reactions matter the most to them, their parents.  Lacking that, as they grow older,  they may look for validation elsewhere – in the wrong places.


 Likewise, people who are belittled on a regular basis by parents who are chronically critical (either because they have unrealistic expectations or project their own sense of inadequacy onto their children) become “little” in their own minds and end up being fearful of taking risks in their professional and personal lives. 


Hence, some live their lives alone, convinced that they will not be competent spouses or parents or end up with critical or emotionally abusive spouses because that is “familiar” to them (as in family).


Or  they stay in “safe” but boring jobs that do not challenge them. How can they do  otherwise when they have been told since childhood that they are stupid, or incompetent. A  friend of mine spends a tremendous amount of money on dry cleaning her clothes, linens  and other machine washable items. When I asked her why, she said that whenever she would do laundry, her mother would tell her that she wasn’t folding the sheets, shirts, even her undergarments properly.  When she would try to iron her  blouses,  every “wrinkle” she missed was pointed out.  Convinced she was useless, in that area, she gave up trying.


Another friend, a bubby many times over, dutifully visits her ailing mother and   has lunch with her, only to be told each and every time that she looks fat and should cut down on her eating.  And even though her husband and friends assure her she looks  just fine, her mother’s words carry more “weight” them everyone else’s.  She does not enjoy going out to social events because she is convinced she looks “gross.”


            I am not a psychologist nor  trained in mental health issues, and what I described above does not necessarily mean children who are criticized or “ignored” will grow up  with self-esteem issues that will result in them becoming unfulfilled and unsuccessful adults. There are many contributing factors. But I do feel that it is crucial that parents be aware of their reactions – both negative and positive – towards their children and act in a way that will imbue them with the confidence and self-esteem that will help them reach their G-d-given potential.


  (Dear Readers, all future On Our Own columns will be printed in the Magazine section.)

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