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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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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 habits.

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 examples:

  • 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 ones.

Repression

  • Stifling our children's creative flair

  • Denying them chances to experiment and explore in situations that aren't dangerous


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 children.

"But, honey, if you really loved me, you'd try harder in school." (guilt)

"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 is right.

"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 self-worth.

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 examples:

    "Organic chemistry is a killer course."

    "You're just naturally clumsy. It's not your fault."


Affirmations can even be a form of evaluation, too. Look at these examples:

    "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 are:

    "How dare to talk to me in that tone of voice, Mister!"

    "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 do.

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 feel?"

    "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.

5. Over-Controlling

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 unsafe."

    "Put your jacket on. It's freezing outside!" instead of "It's supposed to get down into the twenties this afternoon"


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. Examples include:

    "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.

6. Rescuing

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 place.

    "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 stock!"

    "You can't wear paisley with a plaid! They're two different prints! Go change into a solid colored shirt."

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 soccer team?

    "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 you!"


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 self-directed.

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 reader."

    "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 own.

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 children.



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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.



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