I recently re-read the award-winning book The Help. While the book carries many important messages, there is one message in particular that really stood out for me. It was the message about the importance of acceptance. I was struck by just how determined the main character Aibileen is to make sure the child she nannies grows up feeling good about herself. In order to make sure this happened, she tells the child daily she is kind, smart and important. Aibileen reflects on how she’s learned over the years the value of giving children messages of love and acceptance, as she has seen how too many pushes for change can devastate a child’s sense of self. It made me realize how powerful feeling accepted by a parent can be for a child.
Every parent wants the best for their child. They want them to be happy, healthy and successful. Most parents will bend over backwards trying to give a good life to their child. Unfortunately, sometimes in an effort to make things better, we inadvertently make things more difficult. I see it all the time – parents pushing their kids to excel at school or sports, convinced that pushing them will give them a prosperous life. They will fight tooth and nail with teachers to get their kids out of difficult situations and to protect their kids from perceived harm. They fear the emotional devastation that will be caused if their child doesn’t go to the best school or have the best friends or make the best team. They push for change because they believe it is what will give their child everything they want.
No one can fault them for their good intentions. They are trying to do something wonderful for someone they love. The problem is this constant push for the best often causes us to forget the power of accepting someone as they are now. Unintentionally, the message that is often sent along with the strive for change is that who you are at the moment isn’t good enough. This is of course not at all what parents intend. But unfortunately, it is often the impact.
When a child doesn’t get the grades they’ve been pushed to get, they often internalize this as meaning they aren’t good enough. Especially during the delicate adolescent years when we develop our sense of self, many children start to see themselves in a negative light, fearful that every time they don’t achieve in the way their parents want means they are not worthy. I’ve had multiple clients come through my doors who loathe themselves because they truly believe that if they fail a test, take applied versus academic courses, or don’t make the soccer team, they will be the biggest disappointment to their family. I had one youth whose parents had drilled into their mind so much that going to university is the key to happiness, they had convinced themselves that dropping a class would mean they would end up a bum on the street and that their parents would disown them for being such a deadbeat. Never had any of these kids’ parents said anything of the sort. All of their parents were kind and encouraging. However, these were the implicit meanings being taken away from their parents’ well-intentioned push for improvement.
Even therapists struggle with this dilemma: we want so desperately to help our clients feel better and enjoy life that sometimes we push so hard for change we forget just how good it can feel for someone to be accepted as they are now. We wrongly fear that acceptance will prevent people from pushing for change. In reality, feeling accepted can not only lead to even more positive change, it can lead to a positive sense of self. Loving yourself allows you to love life that much more. And loving yourself means accepting yourself, as you are.
So parents, I urge you to remember just how powerful acceptance can be to helping your child have a happy and prosperous life. To hug them and tell them you love them no matter what grade they get and to remind them that you don’t care whether or not they make a team. Take the time to show them that your love for them is unconditional. Because knowing that you are accepted can heal wounds, strengthen relationships and spawn success.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA