The chagim are over and children of all ages are back in class. As the year progresses, many parents will try to ensure their offspring do well in their limudei kodesh and secular studies, helping with homework or even enlisting a tutor.
Unfortunately, some 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 – a positive sense of self.
Tragically, some parents not only refrain from nurturing a healthy 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 unfortunate 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 belittling behavior towards their kids might seriously undermine the odds 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 relentless in their criticism, but stingy with compliments or words of praise when warranted, 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 aren’t necessarily negative, but are remote (pun intended) – glued to their screens or interrupting eye contact with their child by glancing at their phone at every “ding.” And while their kids are very special to them, they may inadvertently give off a vibe that they are not the priority in their life. Both these behaviors can leave the child with a growing sense of worthlessness and feeling unvalued.
Kids, and of course adults, have an ingrained need to be validated; to have the “ups and downs” in their life acknowledged.
For example, a young child loses his favorite teddy and is inconsolable. Some parents, because they don’t know better, will not validate its grief and sense of deep loss of losing its “best friend” 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 its feelings aren’t important – and therefore they aren’t. Or as s/he grows up, she will question her ability to correctly interpret emotional situations and will mistrust her/his reactions.
They will not have the confidence to make choices; they question their ability to make a correct assessment, and allow others to push their self-serving agendas on them. There are sadly many intelligent and educated men and women who were ensnared by evil, strong willed individuals – and ended up giving up their assets, their free choice and even their freedom of movement.
People who are denigrated 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 person is “familiar” to them (rooted in the word family).
They may stay in “safe” jobs that do not challenge them. How can they do otherwise when they have been told since childhood that they are incapable or incompetent?
Young children see their mothers and fathers as all-knowing as parents are their first source of information. So when parents tell their child, “you are useless, you will never amount to anything,” the child believes this to be true. It is daas Torah to them. Likewise, if a child hears that s/he is special, and is praised; if his/her feelings and opinions are heard and respected, they will internalize this positive message, and see themselves as capable, and worthy of respect from those they connect with later in life. And they will gravitate to positive people and not allow themselves to be denigrated or taken advantage of by emotional predators.
A friend, a bubby many times over, dutifully visits her elderly 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” than everyone else’s, and she struggles with a positive body image.
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-respect that will help them reach their G-d-given potential. It isn’t enough to feed young bodies. You must nourish their souls as well.
In my life’s journey, I have been a victim and thankfully an escapee of toxic people who took advantage of my self-doubt and my second-guessing myself. If I can open people’s eyes, then I will be able to say, “gum zu le tova.”