For example, if you were shamed often enough or even in one powerful way as a child, you may have concluded that you were a bad person, unworthy of love. There are many ways this particular conclusion could have affected you, but one way is it may have caused you to choose partners or friends later in life who did not treat you well, because they fit the part of "primary relationship" in the story of your life in your mind. We all have been constructing these stories that both explain and direct us and our lives since our first experiences. This conclusion could also have affected your career by either making you think you were not worthy of a leadership role or high salary, or on the flip side caused you to overcompensate in search of the validation you did not receive when you were young.
I'm sure this subconscious programming came in very handy to help us elicit all of the behaviors necessary for survival back in our nomadic days, since it allowed us to live without each person having to consciously discover for themselves which berries were edible or not, how to find a suitable place to rest for the night, and how to choose an acceptable mate. Our brains probably just weren't developed enough to think for ourselves too much beyond that. We just saw what others did from the time we were very young, and then we did the same thing. If someone did have a brainwave, then voila – evolution occurred through that person. But, it was a much slower process than it is today with our capabilities for more advanced thought processes.
So, programming is how important information and values have been passed down through the ages to help us to constantly increase our knowledge base and enhance our lives by building upon it without each generation having to spend time and energy learning and relearning the basics of life. Up until now, this is what has allowed us to evolve, but paradoxically as life so often is, this is exactly what we must now call into question in order to take humanity and our lives to the next level. This applies (most importantly in my opinion) to our roles as support systems for our children.
I have heard people say that they fear they are becoming just like their parents. When we become parents, our programming is apt to try to get us to do just that. For certain things, this is good and, for other things, it creates fear and anxiety. If we turn this fear into an attitude of conscious love for our children and act on a desire to do better for them, it could be a healthy thing. One such mode of programming that most of us have involves praise. As children, we were praised when we did something that adults liked and wanted to reinforce.
With the release and popularization of books such as How to Speak so Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, many parents and educators know that it's not great to say, “good girl” or “good boy,” so they instead will say, “I like how you____” or “Great job ___!” However, they are still praising the child when they have done something they perceive as good or acceptable because they were programmed to do so. They are training the child to seek out outward approval for every action instead of cultivating a sense of behaving according to what they feel is right. This also applies to their creative endeavors. We praise and comment on their creations thinking we are motivating them; however we are leaving children to mistrust their own judgements of their work as well as dampening their own powers of self-motivation. Our own experiences and the society in which we live give us the message that this is the right thing to do. Whether or not it is the right thing is a whole other topic. But the fact is we do it, and the positive emotional response from our children when we do gives our brains a rush of serotonin, the “feel good” chemical, which reinforces the behavior.
Our Programming and Our Thoughts
The thoughts that trigger emotions, reactions, words, and behaviors are simply products of our internal programming. Many of us have learned to identify with these thoughts and believe that they are us. However, as Eckart Tolle explains, we are the “I” which exists underneath our thoughts and emotions. Basically, we are not our thoughts; we are the consciousness experiencing them and, if we can connect with that consciousness even for a moment, we can truly feel and connect with who we are at the deepest level. Cultivating a meditation practice is wonderful for connecting to our true selves.
We hear a lot today about “detoxing.” What we must do now for our own well-being, for the well-being of our children and the world that they will inherit, is detox ourselves from limiting thoughts and beliefs through choosing better programming. Just like when programming a computer, this takes work at first, but then it just runs in the background, allowing us to live out our new way of being. This is what a large part of my work with parents and children is all about: helping them to realize where some faulty programming is running, and taking conscious steps to rewire their thoughts, words, and actions. It takes time and effort! But it is worth it when we feel how connected to our kids we can be and when see them thriving in the full, joyful, and free expressions of who they are. It, of course, has the same effect on us as well!
Where to Start
There are many ways in which we may need to rewire our brains, but our emotions and our children's states of being are good clues to where we can start. We need to separate ourselves from our reactions to our children’s words and behavior and take a moment to analyze our thoughts, as Naomi Aldort suggests in her book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. We need to ask ourselves if the reaction we are having is truly about the child, or if it is about us. We need to ask ourselves if we are putting up resistance to allowing our love and intuition flow through by having a knee jerk reaction. Anxiety isn't just annoying; it is a great clue that we need to make changes.
A classic example would be if you find your child happily drawing on the wall, one of the rites of passage of the toddler/preschool years. Your initial reaction might be to yell or loudly say something like, “What a mess! Why would you do this? This is bad; we never draw on the wall!” as you rip the crayon out of his hand and send him off stunned or crying, unsure of who feels worse – you or him. However, if you cultivate a practice of catching yourself, assessing the situation, and calmly asking what your child is doing as soon as you notice yourself having an emotional reaction, you might find that in his child-world he is decorating the walls and making a nice picture for daddy when he comes home from work. “See mommy, there’s our house, there’s you, there’s me, and there’s daddy! Won’t he love it?” You could then assess how you want to address the situation, knowing that your child had good and sweet intentions. You could now say something like, “Oh you wanted to make a nice picture for daddy! Let’s show him when he gets home.” You can then honestly state your preference for a clean wall and that other people hold the same preference. “You seem really proud of your work and we will leave it up for a while. If we are both ready one day, we can have fun repainting the wall. In the future, though, mommy would like it if you can draw on paper instead since she likes her walls to be plain. Other people do too. Besides, if you draw on paper, we can hang it up wherever you want!” This way, your child’s self-esteem has remained intact, your connection with him has not been damaged but strengthened, and he has learned what you and others prefer regarding clean walls.
He wouldn’t have truly been able to hear you the first, more emotional way anyway. When children sense anger, they shut down as a defense mechanism, and lose respect and confidence in our emotional capabilities. He still might not have done it again, but it would have been because of a conditioned fear response. However, the damage to his self-concept and trust in you would have been long lasting with negative consequences down the road if trust was not restored. This is not something any of us wants to do to our kids. We all know intuitively as parents that a strong bond with them should always be held in primary importance as it will be a source of comfort and protection them in the difficult adolescent years, even if some outside sources try to get us to convince us to put other things first on our list of priorities.
So the next time you find yourself in a state of anxiety about your child’s behavior, I suggest taking a step back before you act and exploring the thoughts going on in your head so that you can make a conscious choice. Some areas you might want to explore are:
1. Rules, routines, and restrictions
2. The mode and attitude surrounding your child's education
3. Praise, rewards, and consequences
4. How we deal with our children’s emotional expressions
Jacqueline King-Presant, M.Ed. is a child development specialist and consultant. Visit www.brightnewdaychildren.com for more information or contact Jackie@brightnewdaychildren.com. Comments and questions are welcome.