I had a pretty unstable childhood. My dad was married three times, my mother four. By the time I graduated high school, I had changed schools eleven times and held ten different jobs.
This constant change had a big impact for me. For obvious reasons, I had difficulty as an adult settling down in any way. Finding a trajectory (college, career, etc.) and sticking to it was a challenge for me. It was just too foreign. Finding and falling in love with martial arts introduced the first constant I ever had in my life. It began the process of me learning to deliberately choose paths and developing the focus to stick to them.
The tumult of my youth has had a big impact on me as a parent, an educator of children and how I approach writing this blog in one big way.
Because my childhood experience was so diverse, my understanding of parenting and growing up was not limited to a single family portrait. Many people grow up with the same caregivers, same geography and same peers for long stretches, if not for their entire childhood. They see a fairly set way of being a kid and how to parent.
For me, where I lived and who I lived with changed frequently. So I experienced caregivers who were nurturing, who were abusive and who were unavailable. I lived in small towns and big cities, in poor neighborhoods and wealthy, among well-educated families and poorly-educated.
When it came time for me to work with children (and eventually, become a parent), I had no blueprint to use. I loved being around kids and wanted to be effective in how I approached them, so I sought to educate myself.
As you know from reading this blog, I educated myself through careful observation of my students and their families, and by researching the latest science on child development and behavior.
But I have also been curious about how others grew up and so have talked to people about their childhoods all my adult life. I suppose I was looking to vicariously experience childhood stability through others. Though I did find stories of greater consistency and security than what I had, I also found stories of trauma and dysfunction.
I have known people who experienced profound physical and emotional trauma from their parents. Most of them have worked hard to overcome these experiences and unwind the damage they caused.
Interestingly, of the people I have known well who have shared their stories with me, the most devastating source of trauma was not the result of parental cruelty—it was shame.
There are many ways that people can feel shame. A common source of shame happens when you are, or even just feel, different than the people around you knowing full well that that difference will not be accepted.
This is common for people experiencing sexual and gender identity issues, and for people who grew up in authoritarian homes.
For the sake of this article, I will focus on a specific source of shame: a parent’s disappointment.
As parents, we can get disappointed with our kids. They may perform below their potential or behave in a way that undermines our expectations of them. Kids are imperfect beings who are still learning the basic rules of life, so they will fall short.
Failure to meet our expectations in some way is almost inevitable for children. How we respond to, and then express, our disappointment to them can have profound and lasting consequences.
A family friend has described to me how her father never needed to punish or raise his hand to her. All he had to do was say, “I’m disappointed in you.” Those words were crushing for her (as for her siblings), and she pushed herself to avoid having to hear them.
She was not pushing herself in the positive, healthy way that involves seeking new challenges and trying to learn from them. Her efforts were driven by anxiety. An anxiety born of trying to avoid the shame of failing her dad’s expectations. And though she is no longer a child and her dad’s disappointment is no longer the threat it once was, that anxiety followed her into adulthood and is still part of the emotional backdrop of how she makes choices and experiences life.
Her father was well-intentioned when he expressed disappointment. He was not cruel or trying to be mean. But it still created shame that was damaging.
The problem with shame is how difficult it is to resolve. This difficulty lies in the sense that there is something wrong with you. Your failure is the result of who you are. Shame creates anxiety that is directly tied to your sense of identity and self-worth.
If you follow this blog, you have probably figured out that Carl Dweck has had a big impact in my views on parenting and education. I have mentioned her and her work on Mindset Theory in several articles (including here, here and here) and her research has informed much of how I approach kids in general.
In a study she published with Melissa Kamins, Dweck looked at different strategies for expressing disappointment to a child and how it impacted their sense of self-worth and capacity to cope.
In their experiment, they told stories to children. In the stories, kids are doing things they would normally do in a classroom (projects, cleaning, etc). The kids in the stories were given an assignment by their teacher, they did the task, but fell short of the teacher’s expectation in some way.
The children were then told that the fictional teacher gave one of four types of feedback:
- Person criticism—the teacher said, “I’m very disappointed in you.”
- Outcome criticism—the teacher told the fictional child that they had done the task incorrectly.
- Process criticism—this feedback focused on strategy used. The mistake was described and then fictional child was told, “Maybe you could think of another way to do it.”
- No feedback given.
The children were then told a second story in which they are the child being described. The scenario tells of how they were playing with Legos when their teacher asks them to build her a house. In the story, they agree to build the house and they work hard at it because they want to please their teacher. When they are done, they realize that they forgot to put windows into the house. They present the house to their teacher anyway, who then responds, “That house has no windows”.
At this point, the children were asked questions to determine how the scenarios that ended with a teacher giving feedback influenced how the Legos house story impacted their self-image (good or bad person), how the scenario made them feel (happy vs. sad), their level of persistence (willingness to go back and fix the mistake) and general concepts of “goodness” and “badness” in children.
What they found is that children told the stories with person criticism received messages that self-worth was shaped by successful outcomes and undermined by failure. This also triggered stronger feelings of sadness and less willingness to address and fix the failure in the Legos house story. Finally, they were more inclined to see the failures as a reflection of the general “badness” of the fictional children, that the failure was the result of a flaw in who they were, not simply the result of a mistake.
Children told stories with outcome criticism had healthier, but somewhat inconsistent, responses.
The process criticism group, though, showed consistently healthier emotional responses, self-worth and willingness to go back and fix mistakes. Additionally, they were more likely to see failure to be the result of mistakes made, rather than stemming from the “badness” of a person.
This research points to why my friend struggles as an adult with the impact of hearing she had disappointed her father when she was a child. It made her feel sad in the moment, but it also taught her that her failures were the result of who she was. She was left to feel that her mistakes were not simple errors that could be corrected with a change in how she approached a challenge, but the consequences of her shortcomings as a person.
This sense of being incompetent and incomplete led to shame not just in her failure, but in who she was. True, this can be a powerful motivator for performance, but not a healthy one.
As parents, we want to motivate our children to fulfill their full potential in life. In doing so, we do not want to create feelings of shame for who they are or undermine their sense of self-worth.
When your child falls short of expectations, you can follow a simple formula. In neutral terms, describe the failure of their outcome. Then, encourage them to explore other strategies. Ask them to be creative and engage. Encourage them to see failure as an essential part of successfully applying their effort and central to learning any skill. Make it about what they are doing, not who they are. And do not make it about your disappointment.