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The Power of a Parent’s Message

One of my favorite childhood memories was when my mother read me, The Little Engine Who Could before bedtime. She would tickle me and we would repeat the phrase, “I think I can, I think I can”, over and over until I would finally drift off to sleep.

As I got older, my joy of reading suddenly stopped. One day in school I realized that I had difficulty reading in a group. When I tried to read out loud the words somehow got lost or mixed up. Unfortunately my mother was not there to tell me, “I know you can, I know you can.” Instead, my classmates laughed and someone even called me a dumbbell. For the first time in my life, I was convinced that I was stupid.

Over the next few years, my parents took me to reading classes and did something that changed my life forever. Faithfully, they preached that no matter how hard it was for me to read, I could still accomplish anything I desired. The message I received from my parents was life-giving. I knew that my parents unconditionally loved and accepted me. But most importantly, they believed in me and my dreams. They saw my potential, not my limitations.

The Unlimited Impact of a Parent’s Message

Do you remember a few years ago when many parents were concerned their children were being bombarded with subliminal messages from advertisers? As I've thought about this ordeal, I've realized something even more frightening. The number of messages children receive from adults is probably a thousand times greater with unlimited impact.

There are many different types of messages we communicate throughout the day. Whether they're verbal or non-verbal, written, mixed or implied, messages are a powerful form of communication.

Specifically, two types of messages which have a lasting effect upon our children are those that ridicule or degrade them, or loving ones which reinforce their worth, talents and potential. Degrading messages are such things as, “You're driving me up the wall,” “Wipe that stupid grin off your face,” or “When are you going to grow up?” On the other hand, love messages can be, “You're so smart,” “Great try!”, “What do you think?”, and “I'm so lucky to have you.”

These messages are so powerful because a major portion of a child's self-esteem is created by the messages they receive from adults. It's so easy for kids to be effected by even a single word. A simple message we send our children can become their truth. This truth becomes reality, which governs their entire lives, their joy and their success.

What type of message do you think the children of a 40-year-old marathoner received after she was killed by a mountain lion in the Sierra Nevada foothills? The lion was later shot by wildlife authorities, and two separate funds were established for the cat's cub and the women's children. As of April 1994, the fund for the cat's cub raised $21,000, while the children's fund had raised only $9,000.

Focus on solutions rather than the problem

In my counseling experience, I have found that many parents focus on their child's mistakes, instead of emphasizing their accomplishments. They see their limitations and not the potential. As this happens, the message received can be one of disappointment and possible shame, resulting in low self-esteem.

When you need to correct your child's mistake, make sure that your correction is useful and not degrading. Degrading correction sends forth negative messages with lasting effects. For example, when I was called a dumbbell by my classmates because I couldn't read, it was like a knife being twisted into my heart. Make sure that your children understand that an error was made, instead of sending the message that they're stupid. There is a world of difference between those two messages. If you are stupid, that is who you are. If you simply do something stupid, then you can correct your behavior. “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).

On the other hand, useful correction communicates love and acceptance. One way to reap many benefits from useful correction is to focus on solutions rather than developing explanations for the problem. I have found that five simple steps can enable parents to move the focus away from the problem and toward solutions. Help your children become aware of their mistake first. Secondly, once they're aware of the error, help them process it. Next, assist your children in accepting responsibility for the mistake. Focusing on helping them to choose their responses and developing their own solutions is the fourth step. Finally, keep your child accountable by assigning responsibility for the future.

Becoming a Dream-maker through your Messages

Through my own life, I've seen firsthand how parents can help their children realize their dreams. I saw my parents get involved in whatever interested us. Rather we wanted to become a zoo-keeper, teacher, pilot, lawyer, journalist, or psychologist, my parents supported and encouraged us. Never once did they laugh or say how ridiculous our ideas where. No, my parents weren't perfect. They made mistakes. But they never stopped giving us love messages.

As a result, I'm sure that no one thought the embarrassed, seemingly illiterate young school boy would ever pursue a graduate degree, with the exception to two people. My parents instilled within me the belief that nothing was beyond my grasp. As I someday walk down the aisle to receive my doctorate diploma, the proudest part of my accomplishment will be the realization that my parents saw me doing something like this years ago. And on that day if I listen hard enough, just like the little blue engine my mother once read about, I'm sure I'll hear her whisper, “I knew you could. I knew you could.”

Thank you mom for the wonderful messages of love and acceptance. It will be remembered for a lifetime.

“What a difference you can make if you always treat your children not as they might be at that moment, but as you know they can be”.- Steven W. Vannoy

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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