Families That Think - Creating the Proper Family Environment So Our Kids Can Think for Themselves.
Dr. Elisa Medhus
Do we want our kids to use their noggins wisely and
independently, or do we want them to be little ventriloquist
dummies parroting the thoughts of the pop culture and their
peers? Not really a hard choice, is it? But where do we start?
Creating the proper family environment so that our children are
comfortable with who they are is the foundation we must first
lay down if we're to raise self-directed kids. After all, if
they aren't at ease with their own sense of self, how can they
trust their own choices? Instead, they'll rely on outside
factors to guide them-outside influences that may be corrupt and
destructive. Let's take a look at how we have all been inclined
to shape the family milieu in a way that fosters external over
self-direction as well as some ways we can correct these nasty
Three parenting behaviors promote external direction in our
children: modeling externally directed behavior in our own
lives, being conditional with our children, and not having faith
in our children.
Modeling externally directed behavior in our own lives
The way we react to external influences is important because we
help design the first blueprint for our children's sense of self
through the behavior we model. How we act, feel, and think is
crucial, because our children see us as a reflection of the
outside world-as a glimpse into what they'll be like when they
grow up. That's pretty scary stuff! And since most of us are
externally directed to some degree, we want to be accepted by
others too. If we're not careful, though, the behavior we model
will reflect an over-reliance on external influences. Things we
must avoid include:
Trying to have "the right image"
Placing conditions on the approval we receive
Having expectations of reciprocity and entitlement
Mishandling our feelings
This last one requires more explanation than the first three.
What does this really have to do with encouraging external
direction in children?
Suppressing negative feelings send children the message
that "feelings are very bad and should be buried."
Children are then reluctant to use their own feelings as
internal cues to guide them in constructive ways.
Misdirecting feelings by taking them out on someone else
sends children the message that other people's feelings are
their responsibility and perhaps even their fault. Our
children then learn to use other's feelings as something
that steers their thoughts and actions.
Clinging to negative feelings teaches our children that
really bad emotions have no solution. They're just something
they need to put up with.
Being conditional with our children
The second parenting faux pas is our behaving conditionally with
our children. Nothing is more powerful in convincing them to
look outward rather than inward for answers. Some specific
Using qualifying statements that suggest our love comes
with strings attached, like "I love you, but,"
"I love you if," and "I love you, when."
Showing them love only when they're perfect which sends
them the message that they deserve love only when they meet
our expectations of perfection!
Leading our children to believe that we love them for who
we expect them to become rather than who they are now.
Not having faith in our children
Another common message that pervades many family environments is
that we have little or no faith in our children to make the
right choices. This lack of faith in them always encourages our
children to place more trust in external signals than internal
Parental control and domination
Over centuries, parents have been brainwashed into believing
that the best way to raise children is to exert control by using
size and experience to their advantage. The basic premise is
that, if we choose to twist our children's arms into becoming
the adults we want them to be rather than coach and guide them
to making choices for themselves, we're setting them up to be
like us: externally directed. Let's look at three categories of
control and domination:
"How could you, you beast!" - This type of
domination involves stealthy tactics like guilt, martyrdom, and
shame which conveys a sense of conditional love and approval to
"But, honey, if you really loved me, you'd try harder in
"Oh, fine. I'll make your school lunch for tomorrow. I
do everything around this house anyway, seeing as how I'm your
personal slave." (martyrdom)
"What do you mean you failed your chemistry test? Your
parents are both chemists, for God's sake! You're a disgrace to
the family name!" (shame)
Statements like these take their toll on our children's ability
to become self-directed. They program our children to make
choices based on what will please us rather than what they think
"Just leave the thinking to me" [or "Father
(and mother) knows best"]
Here are six tricks parents use to tell their children how to
think, behave, and feel. Although we can't expect to stop these
habits overnight, we might want to try our best to avoid them as
much as we can.
1. Criticism and Nagging
These are forms of evaluation that signal to children that they
are on the wrong course toward shaping the acceptable self.
They, therefore, grow to believe that there are conditions
placed on our love and approval of them and that they must rely
on us and others in authority to measure their performance and
2. Judgments and Evaluations
Judgments and evaluations represent our own observations and
conclusions being forced upon our children with the attitude
that our opinions are superior to theirs. Here are some
"Organic chemistry is a killer course."
"You're just naturally clumsy. It's not your
Affirmations can even be a form of evaluation, too. Look at
"It's OK, I was totally obsessed with my hair in
junior high, too"
Any time we make statements like these, it sends our children
the message that unless they're exactly like us, they're not
okay, meaning they need to go back to the drawing board and
rework the design of their false self. Whenever we make
assessments about our children, we must be sure to get across to
them that these are opinions, not edicts carved in stone.
3. Reprimand and Illogical Punishment
Whereas criticism is a warning to our children that they've
strayed off the course we've set for them, reprimand is the
acknowledgement that they have arrived at the wrong destination.
They often reflect our negative feelings, especially anger and
disappointment. Take a look at how destructive these statements
"How dare to talk to me in that tone of voice,
"You haven't even taken the trash out. I can't believe
how lazy you are!"
Illogical punishment takes this negativity even further. It's
reprimand coupled with parentally imposed illogical
consequences. Examples include whipping children for not telling
the truth, making them write "I will obey my parents"
100 times on a sheet of paper, and sending them to bed without
supper for dallying over their homework. Such punishments only
make our children focus their attention externally on how angry
they are with us and accomplish little in correcting their bad
behavior. Children generally heed reprimand and punishment
because they fear reprisal, not because it's the right thing to
4. Thought Indoctrination
Whereas all of the preceding tactics indirectly transform the
thought processes of our children, thought indoctrination does
so more directly. Typical examples are remarks like:
"You should be proud of yourself for making such a
good grade on your report."
"You should be ashamed! Your brother made the football
team with no problem!"
In this indoctrination, we directly tell our children what they
must think. After a while, they stop using their own thoughts to
decide what to think or how to feel. Better ways of making the
above statements include:
"Wow, you really worked hard on that class
presentation. No wonder you got an A. How does it make you
"Oh, you didn't make the football team? Well I know you
put out a lot of effort. How are you feeling?" Are you
going to try out next semester?"
As you can see, these examples all encourage children to use
their reasoning skills to come up with their own assessment
and solution, and this phrasing in no way forces them to
accept an opinion or judgment that's not theirs.
To ensure the creation of the consummate false self, we often
use coercive techniques like directing, physical punishment,
and threats and ultimatums.
In directing, we tell our children how to run their lives.
Some examples and their alternatives:
"Don't forget your backpack" instead of "Is
there anything you're forgetting before the bus comes?
"You need to wear your helmet if you're going outside
to bike" instead of "Biking without a helmet is
"Put your jacket on. It's freezing outside!"
instead of "It's supposed to get down into the twenties
As you can see, although it's often easier to tell them what
to do, it's much better either to give them the information
that will help them use their own reasoning skills to figure
things out or to let them suffer logical consequences for
their bad choices.
Physical punishment also does much to discourage
self-direction. Many parents feel that spankings are vital to
raising an obedient child, while others, drowning in the
pressures of the day, simply lose control and, in the heat of
the moment, fail to see an alternative. Either approach has
two unfortunate effects. First, it teaches our children that
violence is an acceptable solution to many of their conflicts.
Second, it tells children that they are inferior beings who
need to be dominated and oppressed.
Threats and ultimatums are powerful parental tools of control.
"If you don't get your butt down here right now, you're
grounded for a month!"
"This is the last time I'm warning you. If your grades
don't improve next term, the car goes. Skateboard to school,
for all I care!"
Again, like physical punishment, these tactics just intimidate
our children into doing as we wish. They react out of fear
rather than reason. When we're guiding and disciplining our
children, we need to be sure that we're leaving them room to
think. To be self-directed, they'll have to come up with their
own motives for behaving, thinking, and feeling a certain way.
It's very common in our society for parents to shield their
kids from challenges, settle their conflicts and rescue them
from the consequences of their bad choices. We do this because
we don't want to look like rotten parents, we don't want to be
inconvenienced, we can't bear to see them suffer, or we want
to avoid conflict. But since it permits them to bypass the
reasoning process, it further encourages them to hide behind a
false identity. These children grow to believe that there are
no safe and reliable answers to be found from within, because
they were never given a chance to look there in the first
"Let me show you who you need to be"
There are three externally directed parenting no-no's
belonging to this type of domination: pressuring children to
conform, comparing them with others, and using labeling and
global assessments. Let's take a peek at each:
1. Pressure to Conform
We often cringe at the natural individuality our children
effuse and pressure them to fit the mold along with the
others. We insist they wear designer clothes, we buy them
whatever the latest craze is and so on.
Here are some examples of the statements we make to pressure
our children to conform:
"You can't go out like that; you'll be the laughing
"You can't wear paisley with a plaid! They're two
different prints! Go change into a solid colored
We need to be okay about their being different,
creative, and expressive in ways that are not common practice.
Otherwise, we're just thinking and making choices for them.
Squelching their individuality drives them to make all future
decisions through external direction by using other outside
influences to ensure conformity.
2. Using Comparisons
Some parents feel that comparisons are a useful tactic for
pressuring children into being better than they are.
"Why can't you be like the other kids and try out for the
"I heard Billy, next door, made straight A's on his last
report card. The way I see it, if he can do it, so can
These comparisons just make children feel rotten about
themselves. By comparing them to others, parents are just
letting them know that they're not all we'd hoped for.
Eventually, these children grow afraid to look within to
evaluate themselves. They learn to rely on external measures
such as the opinions of others to assess themselves, personally.
It is more helpful to compare our children to their past
performance, rather than to other people. That way, they can
figure out what changes, if any, they should make in themselves.
When they learn to use themselves as measuring sticks, they
become masters of self-evaluation-a pivotal attribute of the
3. Labels and Generalizations
Both of these control strategies force our children into
thinking of themselves in those terms upon which we've decided.
It's unimportant whether these observations are accurate or not.
And hey, we're bigger and supposedly wiser, so they fall for it
every time! Here are some examples of each:
"Darling, you can't help it. You've always been a slow
"You're the brains of the family."
These remarks could become fodder for future excuses and
justifications. These children become confused about their own
true identity. They need to figure out who they are on their
And then there are generalizations:
"You always lose everything! You'd lose your head if it
weren't screwed on tight!"
"You're always dawdling. Keep up!"
"You never get anything right."
Broad generalizations usually contain words like
"never" or "always." These make our children
give up all hope of shaking whatever assessment we have of them.
It makes them think that these attributes are so sweeping that
they pervade their every thought and action. In fact, it even
deters them from going through the trouble of looking within to
figure out who they really are.
All of these destructive habits have been passed down from
generation to generation, so that they have become deeply
ingrained into our prevailing parenting style. But once we
understand their negative repercussions and learn alternatives
that are constructive, it's actually quite easy to become aware
of and eliminate them from our parenting conduct. When we
understand that what we say to our children and how we behave
toward them can decide if they will grow to think for themselves
or grow to become puppets at the mercy of the junk culture,
these habits can officially retire from "hand-me-down
status"-the first step to building a better world for our
Copyright © Dr. Elisa Medhus,
mother of five and author of the provocative new book
Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, has thirteen years of
experience dealing with the biggest problems families face. Her
new book gives parents concrete, common-sense tools for getting
through to their kids, with seven effective strategies for
raising independently-minded children.