Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.
Of course, you love your children and want to send them the very healthiest messages so they internalize the most positive values, attitudes, and beliefs about themselves and the world. But, as many adult children know in looking back on their own parents and upbringing, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Parents send many wonderful messages to their children, but they also often send less-than-healthy messages that children may adopt and carry with them into adulthood. Let's be realistic. Because we are, first and foremost, human beings with strengths and flaws alike, we can expect to send our children messages that are both healthy and unhealthy. We don't mean to send bad messages, of course; we all want what's best for our children. But whether out of lack of awareness, misguided intentions, self-interest, baggage or just plain unhealthy values, we're all vulnerable to sending messages to our children that can interfere with their healthy development. And the real concern is that our children will pick up those less-than-admirable messages and make them their own.
I realize that I'm wading into sensitive territory here because this discussion involves making judgments about the messages we send to our children. And I don't want to suggest that I am the final arbiter of what is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy for your children. At the same time, I don't think it's that controversial to say that there are messages that we can all agree are beneficial to children. Messages about the value of integrity, compassion, hard work, and accountability would seem to fit nicely into this category. I also believe that there would be widespread agreement that some messages are harmful to children. I would place messages that convey the value of greed, selfishness, mean-spiritedness, and physical appearance in this category. Yet, I don't think I would be going out on a limb by suggesting that parents today (not to mention our popular culture) often communicate these and other "bad" messages to their children.
And you're not alone in sending unhealthy messages to your children. In a survey of more than 1600 parents with children between the ages of five and 17, the substantial majority said that it was "absolutely essential" that they teach their children to develop self-control, save money, be honest, be independent, do their best in school, have good eating habits, and be well mannered. Yet, when asked if they succeeded in sending messages that affirm these beliefs, the discrepancy between the belief and success in conveying the message ranged from 22% (e.g., 84% of parents believed that they should teach their children to be polite, but only 62% have succeeded at sending that message) to 49% (e.g., 83% believed in the value of self-control, but only 34% see themselves as having succeeded in giving that message). As one father who was interviewed put it, "My challenge is I need to be more focused on discipline and all that. But life is so short; I want to have fun."
As you are reading this post, I recommend that you consider what messages you may have gotten from your childhood or later in life and may inadvertently pass on to your children. This process of "looking in the mirror" can be painful because no one likes to look at their baggage and weaknesses. At the same time, it is an act of courage, resolve, and unselfishness to be willing to face your demons for the good of your children.
To be a good role model for you, I'll share with you two bad messages that my wife Sarah (with her permission) and I worry about passing on to my daughters. I have control issues. Though not precisely a control freak in the generally accepted sense of the word, admittedly, when things don't go as expected, we're running late, or when, for example, Catie or Gracie aren't being cooperative, I can get stressed out and pretty darned stern. When our girls push my "control button," I send them messages of inflexibility, frustration, and disapproval, no doubt tinged with anger (though I'm not a yeller).
In turn, one of Sarah's "hot buttons" is worrying about being judged by other people, particularly as it relates to her parenting. This sensitivity to what others might think about her can cause Sarah to get angry and be overly controlling with the girls because she's worried that they will be too loud or rude, even when they aren't by most standards. Such "out of control" behavior would then reflect badly on Sarah as a mother. The messages that the girls might get include feelings of shame for disappointing Sarah, and they have to be perfect or they won't be valued by their mother and others. These messages could then squash their playfulness and spontaneity and hurt their self-esteem.
Both Sarah and I are painfully aware of these and other forms of baggage we carry, and we do our best to resist these personal demons. But, we accept that, if we can keep our unhealthy messages to a minimum and the healthy messages to a maximum, our girls will not only survive, but likely thrive.
There are no magic steps to recognizing the unhealthy messages that you may be predisposed to communicate to your children. Perhaps it's looking back on your childhood and recalling how bad it felt when your parents sent you certain messages, for example, needing to be perfect to earn their love. Or seeing another parent send the same unhealthy message that you've been conveying to your children and being appalled by the message and saddened by their children's reaction, for instance, seeing another parent get angry at their child when he makes a mess. Or putting yourself in your children's shoes and seeing their reaction to your message, for example, how do you think they feel when you constantly correct their language mistakes? In all cases, such an insight will hopefully hit you like a ton of bricks and motivate you to change your messages for the sake of your children.
Another problem with "bad" messages involves not just the content of the messages, but also how they are communicated to your children. You may have the best of intentions to convey a very positive message, but the way that you send the message morphs that message into a very different message that is not healthy for your children. For example, the message you may want to send to your children is the admirable value of hard work and achievement. But the way you send that message is by constantly nagging them to do their homework, materially rewarding them for good grades, and showing disappointment and frustration when they fail to perform up to your expectations. Given these messages, it's likely that your real message will be masked by the explicit messages of mistrust, conditional love, and anger.
The important thing to remember is that your influence over your children is two sides of the same coin. Yes, you can do great harm to your children by sending them bad messages. At the same time, with the right message, you have the power to do wonderful things for them. So, if this discussion raises any red flags for you, don't take it as an indictment on yourself or your parenting. Instead, take it as a call to action to send your children the best messages possible.