I have a few parenting moments I’d really like back.
For example, there’s the time I found my five-year-old playing with matches. Furious and concerned about what could have happened, I wanted to show her the danger of fire. I took her outside into the night and lit up some crumpled newspapers. She seemed terrified of the flames. Mission accomplished, I thought.
Not quite. Years later, she told me what had really scared her: me. Yes, she probably learned something about fire, but I had clearly overdone it. “I was scared of you for a long time afterwards,” she admitted.
Our behaviors and attitudes affect our children
I was trying to be clever by showing rather than just telling my daughter about the danger of fire. But I didn’t consider how terrifying the experience could be for a five-year-old. And I didn’t consider how my child might experience the combination of my anger and anxiety together with the yellow flames. She was terrified, all right. Terrified of me.
I failed to understand how she would experience the fire together with my anger. In a larger sense, I was unable to see the world from her perspective.
As I’ve gained more experience as a parent, I’ve found myself thinking less about how I parent and more about my own attitudes and behaviors and how they affect my children. Taking the perspective of other people comes up regularly for me. How can I better understand what other people are thinking and feeling, including my children, and then communicate to them in a way that makes them feel understood and heard?
Send positive signals for your child to imitate
Beginning when they are very young, children learn primarily by watching us and mimicking our behaviors and attitudes. Indeed, infants just a few hours old are capable of mimicking facial expressions.1
An experiment run years ago by Joseph Campos at the University of California at Berkeley reveals the cumulative power of these millions of moments. Campos and his colleagues built what’s called a “visual cliff,” a special kind of table. One half looks like a normal table, and the other is made of plexiglass. Campos put infants on the normal side of the table and their mothers at the far end of the plexiglass portion.
Then Mom holds up an appealing toy and smiles. The infant begins to crawl toward Mom, until he reaches the visual cliff. Uncertain what to do, he looks up at his mother. At this point, Campos instructed some of the moms to make a happy face and others to make a fearful face.
When moms expressed fear, the babies typically did not cross the visual cliff. When moms expressed encouragement and ease, the babies were much more likely to cross the cliff.2
Parents and children both encounter cliffs and mountains and bumps in the road every day. The signals we send to our children in these moments literally influence the wiring of the limbic system in their brains.3
We parents are our children’s first and most important teachers. Yet we do the bulk of this teaching without even realizing it’s happening.
Do This One Thing
For one day, do not think at all about how you parent your child. Rather, try to see the world from your child’s perspective and imagine what she is learning by watching you. What signals are you sending her — even if subtly — about the world around both of you? What is she taking in about relationships? Stress? Learning? Or anything else?
Like what you just read?
Sign up for my newsletter to receive one new article each week, customized to the age of your child. Just enter your email address below and click “Subscribe.”