Today’s children are in an impossible situation, inundated with messages that don’t jibe. On the one hand, they are told that they are special just as they are and are encouraged to differentiate themselves and follow their dreams. On the other hand, they’re raised in an environment preoccupied with narrow definitions of success. Children, stuck in the middle, spend inordinate amounts of time trying to fit in and meet expectations.
In this environment, curiosity for learning is superseded by the pressure to excel. Similarly, the love of playing is superseded by a cultural obsession with winning.
In psychology, we call these mixed messages a double bind: a distressing dilemma in communication in which someone receives two messages, and one message negates the other. This bind thwarts a child’s ability to develop a path toward authenticity.
On some level, there is nothing to be done about the dilemma — the unhealthy messages are ubiquitous. If this is true, how, then, can we help offset the limitations placed on children due to these conflicting messages?
The first imperative to stopping the cycle is to radically reject the stance, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” This idea recognizes the unhealthy pressures on children but also reinforces them because it perpetuates that you have to play the game in order to give your child the best chance for success.
If you subscribe to this view, then who will counter the message that your child’s value is measured by what she accomplishes, not by what she most values?
Our culture of rapidly changing conditions and intense competition requires a radical message to the contrary. It is not enough to say, “It’s great to win, but the most important thing is enjoying the process.” Your child has eyes and ears and won’t believe it.
The most important thing you can do is to help children articulate what matters most to them. Help them identify, for themselves, small steps toward what they value. Help your children give voice to external pressures, validating them while also strategizing ways to not be defined by them. By taking this approach, you are giving your child a critical foundation of learning to practice intention. Acting with intention is the path to authenticity and purpose.
The most important skills to help children develop are self-observation, self-awareness, and self-understanding.
I have worked with kids in New York City who have all kinds of opportunity but also experience tremendous pressure. One boy, I’ll call him John, is off-the-charts intelligent. He is increasingly recognizing his smarts as something that differentiates him. Yet when he feels inadequate, he unskillfully asserts his intelligence by putting down others, which alienates the kids with whom he so wants to connect.
John appreciates my approach when it is direct and respectfully challenging because he knows his behavior leads to bad feelings in himself and in others. For example, John shared his upset over his team’s performance at a basketball tournament. He expressed disappointment by disparaging his teammates. My response to John was to challenge his notion of success.
“I hear you. Winning is everything. Everything else stinks, right? But here is the crazy thing about your focus on winning: It gives you amnesia about the good times you had all season. Here you are, angry at your teammates for trying their best but still not winning. Your view is what is making you miserable. I can’t argue with it because millions of people feel the same way — that winning is everything. But millions of people are unhappy. I get it, it was disappointing, and you wanted a different ending. But your belief about winning is limiting.”
A 10-year-old can hear these words. I, in turn, listen to John’s response. The message, that it is his attachment to winning that is making him miserable, is not immediately appreciated. But it does resonate for John. He pauses. He resists by letting me know that I don’t understand his pressures, that being best is valued. I validate his perceptions but still hold that I believe it is a dead end. I invite him to test it out. Interestingly, John will keep coming back to the topic.
John started to enjoy being a team player, even becoming a leader and lifting up other players. How did this happen? In part because John was helped to shine the light on his bind. In this way, he became free to choose other ways of acting in his world, instead of reacting out of fear of inadequacy.
Helping children understand their underlying beliefs enables them to skillfully navigate the conflicting and harmful messages they receive. Help them identify their own values and ways to embody them. They, like John, can learn to skillfully chart their own path.