“What kind of question is that? I love my children!”
I didn’t ask if you love your children. Love is common. But do you like your children? Do you enjoy them? Enjoy spending time with them? Appreciate their personalities? Look forward to seeing them? Does your face light up when you think of them?
How about pride? Are you proud of them? Proud of their choices? Their accomplishments? Their abilities? Do they do justice to your family name?
You may be wondering why these questions are important. “What is he getting at? If they accomplish things, I will be proud. If they have great abilities, I will be impressed. And they’d better do justice to our family name!”
Allow me to introduce an important piece of background information. According to the US National Library of Medicine, an abundance of research conducted worldwide has revealed that self-esteem is a crucial contributor to happiness. As far as I see it, the global chase for happiness can be better qualified as chasing self-satisfaction. Happiness tends to imply a state of euphoria, whereas most people are merely searching to be enough - enough for the judgmental voice in their heads that is always waiting to bring them down. This voice can belong to a father, mother, rebbi, teacher, principal, or may be the voice of the general populous. People are looking to be satisfied with who they are - their nature, tendencies, qualities, and most importantly, their struggles. The most validating thing any of us can hear is that our struggles are normal, our imperfections are okay, and we are lovable despite our flaws.
It follows that our parents’ opinion of us shapes our self-esteem. Who better to determine our value than the people we saw as our greatest resource of strength and safety throughout childhood? Their nature is our DNA, their nurture has sculpted our preferences, and they are the ones we always hope to impress.
We sometimes forget that we are those parents for our children. Kids look to us to find out that they are okay - that they are enough, lovable. They hang on every word we utter and every glance we shoot in their direction. The slightest gesture from our eyebrows can send deep expressions of love or crippling messages of judgment.
Here is a fact I don’t believe is up for discussion: If you don’t like your children, they know. They know you see them as weird, annoying, incessant, or disappointing. Whatever negative feeling one has in their heart towards their children is communicated more clearly than any message transmitted through the long-winded speeches we usually use to communicate with children.
For the scope of this article, I am specifically referring to feelings of negativity that shed judgment on the personality of the child. It is less realistic to address momentary feelings of frustration with kids. Children are resilient and can navigate times that parents are disapproving, provided there is an overarching theme of positivity in the relationship. But here is my message: If we do not like our children, we are failing at a most important aspect of parenting. One of the primary goals of parenting is to enhance our children’s self-esteem. It is almost impossible to do so if we cannot find them pleasant, special, and wonderful.
Just to clarify, I am not vouching for self-disparagement. If you look in the mirror tomorrow and realize you don’t like your children, be nice to yourself. I believe self-compassion to be a most effective tool in so many respects. But I am vouching for change. It is our responsibility to change the way we see our children. If we can’t do it ourselves, we must seek out guidance to help us.
We look around the world and blame our children’s behavior on a bad influence at school, an insensitive teacher… but when was the last time you saw a dysfunctional adult and thought, “They’re probably struggling because of that bad friend they had in 6th grade”? Usually, when faced with an adult experiencing dysfunction, a therapist will explore the client’s past, starting with their parents. As a client recently joked with me, “You therapists are all the same,” when I asked, “So tell me about your mother.”
A child with proper support at home can grow to navigate life with resilience. This is not a guarantee, but it gives our children the best chance they have. In contrast, however, I can guarantee that we are becoming our children’s worst adversaries if we communicate to them that they are not likeable.
In my field, it is common for a parent to enter an intake session with their child labeled “Problem.” Many a time I have witnessed an environment that can be summed up with the following real quote from a session early in my career. The mother walked her 12-year-old son into my office, looked him up and down, curled her nose in disgust, and exclaimed, “This kid is a mess and needs fixing.” This is the moment in a session where a therapist makes the mental note: “Mom is the problem.”
We must open our eyes and realize the endless impression that our feelings have on our children. We must like our children. They make it difficult sometimes, but there is no other option without shirking our responsibilities. Our precious bundles of joy need our approval, so let’s get on it.