“Is he good?” I used to ask myself. “What do they mean?”
My typical response was to smile, in a polite, ever-so-English way, and answer confidently, “Oh yes!”
It took me a while to understand what they were really looking for. One day, when feeling a little fed up with this perpetually-confusing question, I responded with a “How do you mean?”
“I mean, does he sleep through?”
Oh! So that’s a “good” baby, is it?
And I realised at that moment how early we start to judge our children on their behaviour.
A newborn baby is classified by our society as “good” or “bad”, depending on how many hours they sleep at a stretch.
As my boys got older, occasionally they would do things I’d have preferred them not to do, whilst we were out and about.
I quickly learned that “inappropriate behaviour” earns your kid the label “bad” or “naughty”.
There’s even a funny story about a supermarket trip where meditation meant I didn’t verbally slap an old lady!
I heard other parents yelling at their kids, “You are a naughty girl!” or “Bad boy!” and it always made me wince.
Now, I’m far from a perfect parent. But there’s one thing I always do my absolute platinum-plated best to avoid – telling my children that they are their behaviour.
Their behaviour is something they do. It’s not who they are.You’re don’t automatically become a bad person, just because you do something naughty. Just as you don’t automatically become a good person, just because you do something kind.
But that’s what we tell our kids!
We tell our children they are good or bad – based on what they do.
What’s The Problem?
I have spent a decade as an NLP Trainer, running seminars, writing articles and mentoring one-to-one clients on the fact that a person’s behaviour is just an outside expression of how they are feeling – and the auto-pilot scripts or habits they are running. It is not who they really are, underneath.
But telling a child (or adult!) that they are bad, they are stupid, they are naughty gets through all the usual communication filters, straight to that part of their unconscious mind that deals with identity level stuff.
It could be said that the way we behave is dependent on a number of things:
But if we use words like “You are…!”, then we’re talking to them at an “Identity” level, not a behavioural level. It gives the child a new label.And psychologists are constantly reminding us (as they invent ever more new labels for us to give ourselves) that labels put us in a box, limiting our behavioural choices and impacting our view of who we are and what we can achieve.
In other words, labels impact our behaviour and results.
In our culture, we’re not used to talking (or thinking) about “who we are”. If someone asks you “who are you?”, we would normally give our name – or perhaps our occupation. It rarely goes any deeper than that.
Yet our unconscious perception of “who we are” impacts our behaviour, happiness levels and what we achieve in life far more than any training course we will ever go on.
Our results are driven by our behaviours – the actions we take.
Our behaviours are driven by our skills, our thought processes and our habits.
These, in turn, are dictated by our beliefs (what we believe we can and can’t do) and our values (what is important to us; what we are motivated by).
And all of this is driven by our deepest sense of identity. This is the area where self-esteem and inner confidence (or lack of) hang out.
By telling children they are bad or naughty, they will be at risk of believing they are naughty or bad and will develop skills, habits and behaviours that match that belief.
That’s why I wince and back-track fast, whenever anyone does that with my boys.
What’s The Alternative?
- Talk to them about the behaviour.
- If they throw their jam and toast on the floor, talk about that, not whether they’re a naughty boy or girl.
“We don’t throw jam on the floor in this house. Please pick it up now.”
- Talk to them about what you would like them to do instead.
“Please eat your toast nicely. If you’re feeling cross, then we need to find another way to help you tell me.“
- Reward positive behaviour. Try not to make too much of a fuss about the behaviour you don’t want. In general, aim to talk about what they do well at least 3 times as much as what you don’t like. It can be hard!
There are many other things we can do, to help our kids grow up feeling confident and happy.
One that is relatively easy, compared to some of the psychology that gets thrown at parents, is meditation.
Regular meditation and yoga practice can help children grow up feeling confident and secure in who they really are.
It helps them build a healthy self-esteem, so that they can choose whether or not to believe someone who accidentally tells them they are “bad” or “naughty”.
We know from our research – and common sense – that this is what we all want for our children.
Just 10 minutes of meditation each day could make that critical difference to a child’s long-term self-esteem.
And it’s never too soon to start!
I think it's important that we think about what we say before we speak to our children. I see everyday what long term effects come from telling a child that they aren't good enough, that they are bad, that they are a "pain in the ass". What may seem harmless to an adult can have life-long consequences on our children. Remember that these little ones don't have a lifetime of experience behind them. What we say to them sticks in their memory, and when the people they love the most, the people they trust to keep them safe, say things to them about how they are "bad" because they sometimes do inappropriate things, they grow up believing that they are bad PEOPLE. The words and phrases we have learned to ignore, or to let slide off of us (like water off a duck's back), are not yet things that our children have learned to ignore. They are sponges, and it is our job to fill them up with love and compassion and understanding and to do our very best not to let their behavior define them as people.
I know it's hard. I know that sometimes we all get overwhelmed. (Believe me. I know!) But we are the adults. We are the ones who are supposed to be able to take the high ground and treat our children the way they deserve to be treated...the way that ALL of us deserved to be treated. It is up to us to break the cycle. No more children need to grow up believing that they are bad people. No more children need to grow into adults who believe they don't deserve good things to happen to them because they were raised being told they were "terrible bastards". It's time for people to treat their children the way they wish they had been treated, instead of making excuses like "I'm all right"...because they are NOT all right. They are emotionally damaged, and their children deserve better.