I stumbled upon this article the other day: 64 Positive Things to Say to Kids and I thought it was pleasant but something of a half truth. The tag line for it was “Because our words become their inner voice [sic]…” Is that true? Do our words root themselves into our children’s inner monologue for years to come? If so, can we pick the language for them?
If you don’t like to read or just want me to cut to the chase and tell you, the answer is no… at least not entirely. You don’t get to pick the assessments your children build into their inner monologues. But there’s still hope, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Primer on Assessments (the inner voice that drives us)
Ok – let’s go over the primer. Remember assessments? Assessments are a category of language (really a declaration) that establishes our reality. They represent the filter through which we observe the world and ourselves in it. It’s language like, “no one understands me” or “people can’t be trusted.” They aren’t factual, but when this language plays in our inner monologue over and over like white noise we don’t even notice them but they are controlling the way we see the world and who we are in that world. Master Assessments are those BIG ‘uns, often impacting how we see ourselves, and they tend to be overarching in everything we do. Things like “I’m not worthy of love” or “I am the center of the universe.” If you drill down most of the assessments you hold they probably come back to your master assessment.
The examples I wrote may seem somewhere between neutral and negative, but they could be positive assessments as well. Even those are not reality – they’re our CHOSEN reality. However, the were not mindfully chosen. Largely, many of our master assessments we chose as children. Science tells us that the developing brain, as part of our survival instinct, will draw certain conclusions and establish certain assessments sometime before puberty. We continue to “make these assessments” true over time through habits in action or thought patterns. We reinforce those neural pathways over and over again and we are unconsciously playing out the decisions we made as children well into our adulthood. When we remain completely unaware of this habit — when they are transparent to us —- these can be exceptionally limiting.
In coaching, of course, we shine the light on those habits, recognizing them for what they are, and then set about a course to establish new habits, behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that create new neural pathways. But the draw to the old habits is strong, so this takes quite a bit of work. But that’s why coaching is powerful. This is how coaching changes lives.
Ok – primer done. (But feel free to reach out if you want to get into more details).
What About My Kids’ Assessments?
So let’s say you’re a parent and you’ve discovered your master assessments that have been playing out in your inner monologue since you were a child. Maybe you’re noticing that your parents have had a huge input into your master assessments. Maybe you start thinking about your own children and wonder… “I want my child to have one of those positive master assessments!” Awww. That’s nice. But here’s the thing. You don’t get to pick. You may influence, but like so many things you’ve probably discovered about parenting, you are not actually the one in control. (Oh – did your bubble just burst? Sorry.)
We Are Creating Assessments All the Time
The assessments we establish come from ourselves as observers in the world and we interpret more than just the language we hear in the world. As observers and learners we take in information intellectually, emotionally and somatically and we take them in from our parents, our communities, our experiences, the media — everywhere. We feel and notice patterns that are reinforced over time and that’s what we call our reality. Our parents are often found in our master assessment stories because for most of us, they were prominent players in our childhood. But it isn’t just the things our parents said. It’s what they did, how they felt, how we felt around them, how they interacted with others, the values they demonstrated AND how we came to interpret them. In fact, many of our master assessment stories, because they were created by us as children, are deeply flawed. I doubt my parents would agree with my interpretation of how the events unfolded in my mind’s eye. But it is how I saw it. And it was a reasonably mundane event that they probably didn’t realize left such a lasting impact on me. And this is often the case. As children, we have an emotionally charged response to an event whether that seemed like a reasonable event to get emotional over to an adult or not.
Reinforcing Assessment Intentionally?
And then there are the events and mantras we try to make be the ones that stick… Let me give you an example. Due to a congenital defect, my parents worried that I would have terrible self esteem and that I’d never be able to see myself as beautiful or at least attractive. My father was a fan of telling me I was beautiful all the time. I especially remember him saying when I was upset or crying, “you’re beautiful when you’re angry.” My mother would say “you have inner beauty AND outer beauty.” They said these things over and over and over again.
So how come my inner monologue isn’t a Kardashian? Because my INTERPRETATION was that they were overcompensating for a true belief that was contrary to their words. Not only did that NOT become my inner monologue, I also developed an assessment that anyone who said I was pretty was lying. I gravitated towards people who didn’t make compliments or would wrap insults into their compliments. I’m pretty sure that’s not what my parents were shooting for.
If you’re thinking – well I just won’t leave that unsaid part open to interpretation, again. You don’t get to pick what your child is interpreting as his or her brain is developing. Human children are wildly unpredictable (sometimes we even assess them as “irrational”). I’m also not suggesting that children will believe the opposite of what you say or that they WON’T carry the assessments you want them to. They might. They just might not. And, to be clear, your good intentions are NOT at question.Moreover, I do think my parents thought I was pretty. As a mother I know that I look into the eyes of my children and see the absolute truth of what beauty truly is. It’s that oxytocin that pumps through you at childbirth. It’s their defense mechanisms for being terrible night time sleepers. Whatever it is, I truly discovered beauty when I met my first child. So yes, I believe that my parents held me in high regard. But as a child I heard the words, along with the actions, as well as the unspoken words. My dad would say, “it’s a wonder you came out of your shell at all.” He never said “because you’re so unloveable when seen” but I heard it. It was MY interpretation.
Should We Stop Trying?
So should we stop saying positive things to our children? Of course not! Fill them with all the positive languages and phrases you feel motivated to share. Believe them yourself and make them a part of who YOU are as you speak them so that it rings true to YOU. Marry them with actions that support them. But don’t invest so much time TELLING your children what to believe that you miss the opportunity to LISTEN to what they do believe. They’re demonstrating those beliefs every moment of every day. The great gift we can offer is not to try to FIX the beliefs they’ve chosen but to listen to them and offer support. We can teach them through our examples that we are ourselves constantly reevaluating our assessments and making new choices and bravely attempting new patterns. Children are influenced by our actions as well as our language.
I look forward to a time when my children become young adults and we can talk about their beliefs and how I may or may not have impacted them in their childhood. I may be crushed to find out I’m not the primary supporting character of their master assessment stories by the way, but I’m open to discovering that. Sort of. Hmm. Well, come back in ten or twelve years and I’ll let you know how that goes.