Children listen to what their parents say much more than we think they do. The trouble with this fact is that they don’t just listen to the words their parents say, but also to the way and the frequency that their parents express these words, and, with time, they develop “sensors” capable of recognizing the subtle insinuations of their parents.
When such insinuations are continuously repeated, they start to define the relationship of the children with their parents. This is when the voice of their parents becomes part of their identities and forges their personalities. The focus of the parent-child relationship varies from one family to another. Child psychologists could probably provide a more detailed and accurate description of this matter, but from what I’ve been observing, the subjects of this focus could be divided into three categories: physical appearance, individual achievements, and social relationships.
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Parents may focus on the physical characteristics of a child, whether the child’s weight, fashion style, the way they talk, walk, smile, hold themselves, etc. This is when we hear sentences such as, “Don’t eat this cake; you’ll put on weight!” Or “Just look how you’re smiling. It makes you look ridiculous.” Most of the time, it is the second part of the sentence that stays in the mind of a child. This voice will keep echoing and revolving and will have a snowball effect, getting bigger and thicker in the child’s mind until he or she becomes too self-conscious of the image that his or body supposedly projects.
Sometimes parents may focus on achievements, setting high standards for their kids and pushing them to do more than they are capable of, whether academically, physically, artistically, etc. In this situation, parents do not accept just a child’s “good” grade; they demand the best grades. The concept of “being number one” is what these parents expect from their kids. Kids whose parents are too focused on their achievements will fear their parents’ disapproval when the parents’ expectations are not met. Such children would constantly get the impression that they can only be accepted after achieving something that makes them “worth it.”
Finally, some parents tend to focus on the success of their children’s social relationships to the point of obsession. In this case, parents compare their children’s lifestyle, habits, behavior, and hobbies to those of other kids, setting success standards based on what others are doing. This category differs from the second, as the intention here is not to achieve the best results, but rather to shadow what others are doing. This is when we hear parents bemoan the fact that their kids “haven’t received any flowers on Valentine’s Day like their other friends did,” or “that they aren’t interested in learning how to practice karate like other boys of their age.” The problem with these continuous insinuations of disappoint and disapproval is that, as innocent as they sound, they focus on what the child doesn’t have or doesn’t do, leaving a sense of void or a feeling of guilt in his or her mind (“If my own parent reminds me that I’m not practicing karate, every hour, of every day, I must be failing somewhere”). This category can reach its peak when parents set expectations about how their kids should behave to achieve them, leading to harassing demands from parents who never seem satisfied with anything.
While these three categories differ in their substance, they do have one common point: the love of the parents is conditional. It can only happen when the child meets certain conditions. Or even worse, in some cases it could be used as a trading currency to meet the parents’ objectives. The downside of these types of relationships is that in the long term kids learn to underestimate their capacities as they never seem to be doing enough to get their parent’s appreciation. This also creates an alienating parent-child relationship, where the second party seems to be deprived of its most basic, simple right: that a person be allowed to evolve and grow freely.
In the long run, the voice of the parent in the mind of his child will become a trigger for exasperation. At one point in children’s development towards adulthood, they will have to take one of two paths to survive the pressure caused by these voices. Unfortunately, both paths come with a sacrifice. The first is when children accept parents’ harassing demands in order to save their relationship with them, resulting in a loss of themselves. In this case, children (unwillingly) sacrifice themselves by allowing their own opinions to fade away, as long as a certain recognition is received from their parents. The second path is when children choose to sacrifice their relationship with demanding parents in order to save themselves, their opinions, lifestyle, and beliefs, and eventually free themselves from the inner voices of alienating parents.
Children listen to us much more than we think. They do it probably too well, and it’s time for us to grant them with a similar treatment by listening to what they need in order to prevent such sacrifices.
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