One of the things I spend a lot of time convincing parents is that kids learn more, much more, from parents’ behaviors that they do from their parents words. Parent’s can talk and lecture until they are blue in the face but their kids don’t follow their words. It is because they are watching their parents’ actions and learning from those. Let me clarify here…actions may be words but they are different than those words that come out when a parent is “parenting” and telling their child to listen to their sage advice.
It can be a real eye opener for a parents when they complain about a child’s behaviors only to have it pointed out how the parents do exactly the same thing. They’ve just never realized it. Yet they consistently taught their child that despite what we say, this is the way it is really done.
That can be very damaging. A child is learning behaviors that are not necessarily productive to them and are counter to what their parents want them to learn. Yet that is one of the major ways children learn.
Of course this can happen in any area of a child’s life. But lately I’ve been seeing it popping up again and again in one particular area. One that can be truly damaging to confidence and self-esteem. I’ve been seeing the issue raise its head in mother-daughter relationships.
Mother daughter relationships are complex. Even the best ones have their challenges to navigate. And the issue of sending unconscious or unintended messages in that relationship can be incredibly damaging. The pressures on women and girls in this society are enormous. Our society tells them that they can’t be pretty enough, or skinny enough. They shouldn’t be too smart because guys don’t like that.
The supposed rules go on and on. And as a result we see too many females with issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem and eating disorders. I believe most mothers hate seeing their daughters put under such pressure. They probably even actively talk about the challenges, encouraging their daughters to resist them, to be confident, to be themselves.
Those words are all well and good. Except too often those same moms are sending a different unspoken message. It says looks to matter. It is important to be skinny or beautiful or whatever the issue of the day is. And the problem is those moms don’t even realize they are sending that message.
How can that be? I’ll share a version of a story that I have heard multiple times just in the past few months. It goes something like this. A young girl says, “I think my mom is the most beautiful woman in the world. But when I tell her that she tells me she is fat or her hair is terrible or this body part is too big or too small.” The specifics may vary but the message doesn’t…the daughter has her own version of beauty. But when she shares it with mom, mom tells her she is wrong.
That message can have amazing impact. It makes those girls question their own judgement of beauty. They start to look around for a standard they can “trust”. And they get plenty of messages…skinnier, taller, shorter, bigger that, smaller this. And since only a portion of people can actually achieve those standards in a healthy way, it means everyone else is left striving futilely to try to achieve impossible perfection.
I am certainly aware that these negative, unhealthy messages come from more than just moms. They come from dads and brothers and sisters and boyfriends and girlfriends and aunts and uncles. They come from television and ads and magazines and the internet. They are everywhere. Yet when I hear women and girls discuss this, one of the most powerful places to get these messages is from their mother. From the person they most want to accept them, their role model.
It would do us all well to look at our actions and ask what unintentional messages we are sending. I think everyone struggles with some of the messages they’ve received in life, ones that cut into you or create self-doubt for example. We know how difficult it can be to fight those. So ask yourself…isn’t it worth trying to avoid spreading that message to others? Particularly those you love? The next time someone pays you a compliment…one that cuts against what those messages tell you, how about not deflecting it? Instead accept it. And remember, if you don’t, you are telling the giver of their compliment that their judgement is wrong, it is flawed. Is that the message you want to send?