Parental Butterfly Effect

     While attending a weapons seminar over the weekend in Phoenix, I witnessed an exchange between a mother and a young boy of about 8-10 that disturbed me very deeply. It being Saturday night, I was sitting outside a restaurant waiting to be called to a table (there was a 20 minute wait). As I stood by the entrance, a short distance away from the small groups of patrons who were sitting outside on benches smoking (in Arizona, restaurants are smoke free zones) I watched the young boy who was a few paces ahead of his parents and siblings walking up one of the sidewalks leading to the restaurant.

     Suddenly, his mother screeched for him to stop and come back. Her intention was to stop him from walking along the path of people smoking. At first glance, her actions would seem to be commendable; a mother protecting her child from the evils of second hand smoke. Although there was just a handful of smokers out in open air sitting on benches that were separated by this approximately 8’ sidewalk, it can be argued that in the 2-3 seconds it would have taken for this child to traverse this evil gauntlet to the front door, he may have breathed in some minute particles of cigarette smoke. I’m not trivializing the damage this could presumably have done to this young child’s seemingly healthy lungs. For all I know, he may have a medical condition that would have been greatly affected by this brief exposure. This is all beside my point.

     It was the WAY the mother yelled at her child and how she continued to berate him even AFTER he was out of the “danger zone”. In an angry contemptuous tone, loud enough for everyone to hear she called him an idiot 5 times. The boy, in the face of this assault assumed the behavior and posture I’ve seen too many times to count; the perennial submissive abuse victim’s posture. My heart went out to this poor child and I took a glimpse into his future development, through adolescence and adulthood. It looks pretty grim.

     I like to avoid snap judgments and this brief exchange was obviously not enough for me to judge this young mother or the totality of her relationship with her children. However, the ease with which she completely stripped her child of self-dignity and worth in that brief public moment spoke volumes to me. I’ve a pretty good feel for these things. I’ve been teaching martial arts to children for more than twenty years. I’ve seen the product of this soul destruction. I’ve also seen self-esteem get rebuilt and blossom into a confident young adult. It’s not an easy path and often the wounds never heal.

     The irony here is that when this child as an adolescent, or an adult, begins to make the wrong choices in his life, his mother will probably find other forces to blame. Society at large, the school system, MTV, CRap music (yes I added the C), drugs, poverty, peer pressure etc. Everything, but her own failures as a parent during the years when she could have made a difference.

     People often scratch their heads in wonder at how others take the downward spiral into the abyss of negative behavior. From passing on this abusive behavior (often physical), to tolerating an abusive lover/spouse/friend, to sinking into the pit of drugs and alcohol or to the extreme of taking an automatic weapon to school or work and indiscriminately killing innocent people. 

I’m no one to judge other parents and I don’t offer unsolicited child rearing advice (or relationship advice for that matter). For one thing, I’m not qualified. I believe there is only one true judge and we’ll all meet Him soon enough. 

     My own parents were far from the ideal. I could tell some stories that would stand your hair on end. I will however say this for my mother. She was, and is, my greatest fan. In her mind, my siblings and I were the smartest, handsomest, funniest, most talented beings to grace the planet. Amazingly, we never had to DO anything to deserve these accolades.  I never heard her utter a negative or denigrating name to us. Don’t get me wrong, as a Latin Roman Catholic woman, she had honed guilt to fine edged sword and she could rant and curse with the best of them. But in her reprimands, it was always about the behavior and not the person. What we DID may have been idiotic, but we ourselves were not idiots. You get the point. When she addressed our character and physical being her reviews were glowing with compliments and pride. They still are. We remain her life’s greatest achievement. I have retained this particular parenting skill and I use it on my own children. It is the most powerful tool in my toolbox. It helps that I actually believe it and mean every word of it. I cannot overstate the impact of this type of positive reinforcement.

     I firmly believe that a person’s self-esteem is a reflection of their parent’s assessment during their developing years. I’m not talking about having unrealistic expectations and putting pressure on performance. I’m talking about self-worth. We as parents are the custodians of this trait. They are dependent on us for this as they are for food, clothing and shelter. We can give it to them either positive, negative, or not at all and they in turn will meet our expectations no matter how low we set the bar.

For those who believe they can balance out the negative attacks with positive comments I offer that the things your children will remember vividly are the negative. They will outweigh all other things. The positive will have an effectively subtle, often unconscious effect, but the negative will have a devastating, vivid long lasting one. Try it sometime. Think how long you carried an aspersion cast against you by someone as opposed to the myriad of compliments you’ve received. See what I mean? When you add the significant need for approval of a parent to a young child the effect is magnified even more.

     It is amazingly simple to not engage in destroying your child’s self-image. It’s not even highly advanced child psychology. You don’t have to read Dr. Spock, Dr. Phil or any other Dr to learn this. It’s a matter of tapping into that moment you first laid eyes on them when you held them in your arms shortly after they came into the world. Remember? They were perfectly formed angelic creatures who were screaming their newborn heads off. It would have never occurred to you at that moment to shout, “Stop being a wimp and shut up!” Nope. Your pure instinct at that moment was to hold them close, fiercely protective and glowing with pride. Your child will provide you with myriads of opportunities to give them this positive reinforcement. If you don’t see them doing it, then create them yourself. The benefits are like compound interest for the soul.

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