I wrote a few months ago about how self-fulfilling prophecy works with children but I wanted to write today about how it works with parents as well because I so often hear or read about parents who are saying they think they’re crap. The thing is, when we tell ourselves we’re crap, we act crap, and we invite people to treat us like crap. Then we get into a hideous vicious cycle whereby we see the crap ways we behave, beat ourselves up about it and tell ourselves how crap we are, and then act crap again.
In addition, people are sensitive to emotions and feelings, and we see people how we subconsciously perceive them to see themselves, like a mirror. So when we believe we’re crap, even if we don’t say it out loud, our children pick up on it and treat as we are subconsciously inviting them to treat us – like crap.
When we ask our children to do something with the basis of ‘I know they won’t do it, they never listen to me, I’m a crap mum who deserves no respect from them whatsoever’, they hear what we ask differently than when we ask with the basis of ‘I know they’ll do what I ask because they’re lovely children and I’m an amazing mum who is worthy of their respect’.
So, for example, “can you get your shoes on, please?” becomes “Please get your shoes on, please. Oh, come on, please do it. Can’t you be nice to me just this once?” even when you don’t actually say those words. The request acquires an undertone of whining and tells your children that you don’t expect them to do what you ask, and that there’s no point in them paying you any attention anyway because you’re worthless.
Or it becomes “Shoes on!” and they hear the same words with a confident smile and hear that you love and respect yourself and they then reflect that back to you.
Obviously this isn’t a foolproof way of getting your children to do what you want, but even without wanted specific responses to your requests, how you see yourself tells your children how they should see you.
However, it isn’t as simple as just telling yourself you’re amazing once or twice, you really have to believe it. Once, when my nine year old was having trouble getting to sleep, needing us with her and making a right old fuss about it, we initially tried two different approaches.
First of all we came at it frustrated and irritated: “Come on! You’re spoiling our evening. Oh for heaven’s sake, OK, fine, I’ll come and get you to sleep – anything for an easy life!”. Even if we didn’t say these words, she felt them and moaned and whined until we gave in. Often we didn’t give in and go and lie down with her, but, without realising it, we weren’t really certain that we wouldn’t. We were confused, and irritated by the situation.
Then we just decided that maybe she did need us with her for a while and we pro actively decided to lie down with her to help her get to sleep for a couple of weeks. There was no improvement.
At last, thanks to a conversation with my Mum, we decided to sit down together and work out where our boundaries were and to agree that we were deeply certain that we would stick to them. Then we went to her and said the same words we’d said in the first approach: “Get into bed, we will check on you in fifteen minutes.” but the basis for those words was different and she could feel the difference. She knew we meant what we were saying because we knew we meant what we were saying.
Let me give you another example: child in full meltdown, in public, having whinged and whined all day long. Same Mum, two different approaches. First approach: “Oh my God, I’m so unbelievably crap at this! What must everyone think of me? I’m never going to get her to calm down and come home.” This leads to a child who is not confident in her mother’s ability to mother, which is scary, which makes tantrums worse. She is also picking up on her mother’s panic, even if her mother says nothing, which brings more tension and fear to the situation.
Second approach: Mother tells herself “OK, I can do this. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. I am an awesome mother, I am the grown up here, and I can be here for my child the way she needs me right now.” Result? Child feels more secure in her mother’s ability to mother, and there is a hugely reduced level of panic in the situation as now it is only the child panicking and not the mother.
It doesn’t work, however, if we’re only talking the talk and not walking the walk; if we’re saying “I’m amazing” through gritted teeth and a rictus smile, it doesn’t have the same effect.
The solution, in my opinion, is not just to tell ourselves that we “can do it” in the moments it’s required but each and every day. When our children are being fabulous, we should congratulate ourselves. When our children are complimented on (not necessarily for being ‘good’ – something that irritates me – but simply for being nice people, who are pleasant to be with), we should remind ourselves it is because we are such amazing parents.
We should wake up every morning, look in the mirror and say “I am a wonderful, capable, strong mother”. We should put it on post-it notes around the house. Have photos up of you when you’re being amazing to remind yourself how wonderful you can be.
And tell your children that you’re amazing as well. Show them how to love themselves unconditionally as well as to respect your brilliance. Show them how to appreciate their wonderful points and yours, how to smile and thank people when they are complimented instead of denying the compliment.
Next time you catch yourself telling yourself that you’re stupid, consider how you would feel if someone said that to your child. Then turn it around: “I made a mistake, but I’m such a capable, creative-thinking woman I can use this to make sure I do better next time,” just as you would tell your child.
What we believe about ourselves come true, so believe that you’re wonderful, and you will be.