In an achievement-oriented society such as ours, there is a tendency to equate our significance or importance with our ability to perform certain tasks. Even as Christians we tend to evaluate our worth on the basis of what we have done rather than on the basis of who we are in Christ. As we mature in our faith, however, the Holy Spirit is constantly at work within us helping us realize where our true identity is really found.
Often your child’s area of interest or strength will be something with which you are not familiar or which holds no interest for you. Do not make the mistake of downplaying an interest simply because it holds no natural attraction for you. For your child’s sake, you must go the extra mile to become interested. But keep in mind that your interest must be genuine; a child can tell if you are not being sincere.
“Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)
The tragedy is that when we put ourselves on a performance scale to measure our worth and significance, we tend to put those around us on one as well. Thus, we accept others on the same erroneous and artificial basis that we accept ourselves. Unfortunately, our children often bear the brunt of our insecurity as adults. Our personal struggles with self-esteem overflow in our expectations of them. Since we are never quite satisfied with our own performance or looks or whatever, we find it difficult to be satisfied with theirs, either.
The result is that we push and push and push. We expect better grades, better batting averages, better manners, better friends, better goals, and so on. Things are never as good as they could be. So children grow up under pressure to achieve a standard they find somewhat elusive and ever-changing. They work to earn something that should be freely given, that is, acceptance. And as Hugh Parham Stanley puts it, “Nothing can alienate a child quicker than having to work for something that should be given freely” (The Challenge of Fatherhood in Today’s World; St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1982, p.50).
Children in this situation tend to become workaholics or to give up altogether and quit trying to measure up. In both cases the parents have failed because the children have come to believe on an emotional level that acceptability is based upon ability to perform certain tasks or to look a certain way.
Unrealistic and ever-changing expectations are a form of rejection because you as a parent communicate that you are more concerned with your children’s behavior as it reflects on you than you are with them as individuals. You may not think about it in those terms, but why else would you keep pushing them? Children may not recognize what has happened is rejection, but their deep feelings of alienation and hostility are characteristic of children who have been openly rejected . . .
“But,” you say, “am I not to motivate my children to excellence? Am I not responsible to help them develop to the fullest of their potential? Are there not times when I need to push a little?”
Absolutely! In fact, motivating your children to excellence and improvement is in itself a part of expressing unconditional love and acceptance to them. To allow children simply to get by in life is another form of covert rejection. It is as if you are saying, “I don’t care if you amount to anything in life.”
If you are to motivate your children to excellence without expressing an attitude of conditional acceptance, two things must be true. First, all your prodding and motivating must be preceded by demonstrations of your unconditional love for your children. There must be memorials, so to speak, to their worthiness in your eyes. By memorials I mean events or conversations that have clearly expressed your love.
Memorials such as these are beneficial because they reassure your children of your unconditional love, and they provide a comfortable context for failure. Sometimes you will expect too much from your children, and they will fail. These reminders of your unconditional acceptance make it easier for them to face you when the bottom drops out.
Memorials can also take the form of a gift, such as jewelry, something related to a favorite hobby, a special item of clothing, or even the bestowal of certain privileges. In presenting the gift, stress several times that it is not connected with any particular occasion or activity on their part; you are giving it just because you love them . . . .
The real key here is to view each of your children as a unique individual. The assumption must be that each child is gifted in some particular area. Your goal as a parent is to recognize that area of strength and emphasize it as your child develops, for in these areas of strength lies your child’s greatest potential for excellence. By cultivating these areas, you will do great things for your child’s self-esteem as well.