It's mothers day, a moment of gratitude for many. We all think our mom is the best one in the whole wide world; she's our mom, so why shouldn't she be? But as we get older this time of the year should also be about thinking about what we are doing right and wrong for our children.
Self-esteem is a hot topic right now as three quarters of young girls reveal they don't like how they look, four out of five are afraid of getting fat and 60 percent withdraw from normal activities (sport, putting a hand up in class, even going out) as a result of low confidence.
One thing is clear, the role of the mother in her daughter's teen years has never been more important.
For many generations as long as you did the basics right then you were a good mother. Self-esteem was rarely discussed unless you picked up a self-help book, which meant you had "issues."
We have all had fraught moments with our moms: Our boundaries were tested and our self-worth challenged. It's the right of passage of an adolescent. You can't do anything about it. Or can you?
Recent studies have shown that the subtler side of mothering, the more emotional, psychological part, is often lacking in this day and age.
A piece of research revealed that mothers are more likely to criticize themselves in front of the mirror than childless women. An insecure mom may therefore transfer their issues to their a child. If she is worried or stressed, fragile or negative they will feel it.
In a plane it's the mom who has to buckle up before she secures her children. If mom isn't safe then her children won't be.
For instance the relationship a mom has with her own body will clearly have a direct impact on a daughter's. I remember a friend whose mom would flaunt her big boobs in the garden, and it embarrassed us both at an impressionable age. Or another who spent hours in front of the mirror bemoaning her stretch marks and wobbly bits. Criticizing their bodies and faces puts too much emphasis on the exterior, the superficial and it also creates this sense that imperfect is bad.
But that's just skin deep.
There's a whole gamut of gender specific language and systems that have been used for years by great grandmom's, grannies and mims that are are just no longer appropriate today. Daughters are cute and pretty; boys are often strong and brave. It begins from a very young age.
Self-esteem also comes from the ability to deal with life, experience problems successfully. But many moms project their fears and insecurities on to their children. How many of us have simplified a task for our children, to avoid frustration or negative emotions? Helped a child win a game to prevent a tantrum? Accomplishing something against the odds gives children a real sense of achievement.
Then there are those phobia moments, those alarm bells from our youth, when our parents transferred their fear to us... "don't go on that slide, don't jump off that rock, don't eat that" out of terror normally experienced many years ago. Our inner child cannot mother our children. Safety and security originate from clear boundaries but being free within them. Constant fear triggers will not create stability whereas encouraging a child to try new things tests their freedom and strengthens their resilience.
The whole area of praise and compliments is also tricky. Half of adult women don't like being complimented and many of them don't believe in compliments. Maybe this is due to fake praise or compliments that parents and then friends have used in the past. It is very easy to reward a child generally. "You're such a good girl," "you were so well-behaved" but children need the precise details otherwise it comes across as insincere. Or it's tempting to say something is brilliant when it isn't. If a child hears superlatives all the time then they think they need to be exceptional all the time and will feel they fall short of parent's high standards. The same goes for one's looks. If parents tell you you're beautiful all the time and the child just doesn't feel it then there's a disconnect. I remember disliking my frizzy hair, and no one seemed to understand why I hated it so much. My parents told me I looked lovely but I just didn't believe it. Discussing my perceived yucky bits, even if they were in my head, might have made me accept them sooner. I still loathe seeing myself and my birds' nest hair in a mirror (It's why I wrote the fairytale story of The Ugly Little Girl). Compliments need to be simple specific and spontaneous.
Model parents aren't the answer either. They actually need to model imperfection. Feeling like you never get things right creates dissatisfaction and frustration. Being disappointed is healthy part of life so parents should be honest about what they aren't good at and speak out when they get stuff wrong. To err is human.
My dad used to say that us kids were the arrows and he was the bow. Part of launching your kids into life is helping them discover their true abilities. Not what you want them to be. Or what they think they should be or what they would like to have done but never did. But their authentic passions. Doing what you love most in life is the route to inner happiness.
As parents we often rely on school to direct children's talents, apart from extracurricular hobbies. But a child's gifts, as identified by Martin Seligman, a psychologist, may lie outside of academia. Seligman describes a dozen core skills from bravery to citizenship, creativity to curiosity. Helping your child develop their natural gift gives them a place and space in life, something they own and can do well without forcing or struggling.
Mindfulness has also been proven to have a direct influence on inner happiness. Being kind to others activates the reward part of the brain in the same way as when one is pleasing oneself. Doing little, nice things for others such as making a cuppa, giving up one's seat in the bus or smiling at a stranger engender a feeling of well-being.
Above all there is a general tendency for us adults to see the glass half full, to be cynical. Children are bubbling over with enthusiasm and we need to do our best to preserve that precious energy. So after a bad day at work how many of us have moaned about our boss, the traffic, headache, lack of sleep etc, etc, etc. One of the simplest techniques Seligman has employed for children, which is also being used as part of the new body image school program, is called "what went well today." It can be something as anodyne as baking a cake through to standing up for someone at school. At the end of every day everyone has to celebrate the three good things that happened and over time this builds layers of confidence that ends up becoming like solid rock.
So this Mother's Day, I call on all of us who care for kids to take a long, hard look at the nuances of our mothering. Are we being too anxious, too restrictive, too generous, too perfect? Being you in all your colors is the greatest way to show a child that you believe in yourself and that being happy is everyone's birthright.
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