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Lessons Inferred From the Mind of a Child

Updated on January 15, 2019

What We Say and What They Hear

The way a child's mind works is often underestimated by the adults in their lives. Even the most positive messages that we try to send our kids can be misinterpreted and internalized in very destructive ways. If the context in which the message being delivered is a tense, tumultuous, or frightening one, then the words we tell our children, and the way in which we express them can cause life long damage to the self esteem and self concept of our children, even if we're intentionally trying to avoid doing just that.

If It Can Happen to Me it Can Happen to Anyone

At some point in my life, I internalized a conflicting conception of myself that has had a significant impact on my self esteem. I felt constantly at odds with myself. Deep down, I knew that I was valuable and worthy of love but, I was perennially questioning that worth because it seemed like every other force in the world was telling me that I didn't matter. I somehow developed an inferiority complex that gave rise to mental illness, an identity crisis, and a very unhealthy outlook on myself as a person. As such, my mental illness, identity crisis, and the absence of my self worth have negatively impacted my physical and emotional well being as well as my relationships with others. From this destructive and pathological state of existence, I grew from a child who was confused about my worth to the world into an adult that was convinced I'm a bad person. For the past 4 or 5 years, I've been reflecting on how and why I developed such a negative self image. After a lot of contemplation, I understand that it wasn't one thing exclusively but, I also now realize that there were things which I was taught that, at the time seemed like they should have combated the negative self image yet, instead, only served to exacerbate it.

The Result of My Own Personal Experience

When I was young child - long before my dad gave up trying to be a parent or present for that matter - he would usually try to make sure that his punishments for me were just and that he was delivering positive messages to me with them. Whenever I did something bad or got in trouble at school, the ensuing punishments and conversations with him would generally conclude with some variation of the message that I'm "... not a bad kid". "Why would you do that, you're not a bad kid", "don't do that, you're not a bad kid", "I don't understand why you would do this, you're not a bad kid". On the surface, these sound like very positive messages to send to a child. It sounds like a parent reinforcing the notion that the child is inherently good. I do believe that was my father's intent and I don't hold any contempt for him in that regard. Nevertheless, the question remains, how could hearing those messages possibly convince me of the contrary which, in turn caused me to internalize an inferiority complex and the notion that I'm a bad person? The answer lies just as much in what was left open to interpretation as it does in what was actually verbalized. My father never differentiated between me and my antisocial behavior. I was never taught that doing a bad thing was part of being a kid. I was never told that I was a good kid who just did a bad thing. Instead, between what was said and what was inferred based on context, the message I received was that only bad children do bad things. Inevitably, as every kid does, I went on to do another bad thing. As expected, my behavior granted me punishment culminating in same lecture as always. This only served to strengthen this fallacious idea that was already ruminating in my head. If I kept doing bad things, it must mean that I'm a bad kid. Eventually, as the mistakes and deviations built up, they lead to the gross misconception that, despite being told otherwise, I was the personification of my faults and failures.

What We Need to Keep in Mind

As adults and especially as parents it can be easy to completely overlook the malleability of a child's mind. That malleability is accentuated by an immutable imagination that will take the child to inexorable reaches of their own creativity. As beautiful and inspirational as their imaginations are, we must remember that they interpret the world much differently than we do, particularly when the context of a discussion is left open for them to do so. Therefore, part of raising a child must include clarifying the difference between doing a bad thing and being a bad child.

© 2019 Caleb Murphey


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