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Dr. Kirk: Measuring Up

by Michael E. Kirk, PhD
Dr. Kirk is a local clinical psychologist, father and grandfather, who specializes in working with families, adolescents, and children.


You are not as good at math as your brother,” mother reports, eyeing her younger son with a firm look. “You should work harder at it, you know?” The boy lowers his head and gets back to work, yet he wishes that he could crawl away to a deep, dark cave.  Elsewhere, Father takes hold of his son’s shoulder, wheels him around, and chastises him for teasing his sister. “Why can’t you be as nice as her for once in your life?  She is always polite and always completes her school work. You never try as hard as her.”  The boy, feeling rejected and less important to his family than his sister, struggles to be free of his father and heads off to the seclusion and loneliness of his bedroom. These children both stand charged with being less than their family expects of them. The allegations from the judge and jury, the parent, can be so very damaging.

Each of us is unique. However, if we are taught to always compare ourselves against others, it causes a trap to develop. If an individual tries to be more like someone else, as a parent may often suggest, “…can’t you be more like your older brother”, the individual’s uniqueness becomes trapped. The child’s true personality is hindered, and now the child attempts to “fake” his or her way through the quagmire of childhood, perhaps second-guessing everything he or she does.

Some children already are at a disadvantage if they enter the foster system or perhaps reside in two different homes. This often shakes the child’s initial belief in oneself due to the fact that, as a foster child, he may think, “My parents didn’t like me the way I am, so they left me” or “I need to make my dad happy because he is always so grumpy.” Children learn to modify who they are as individuals, yet in doing so the child loses his or her individuality. The successful parent is one who can allow the child to be who she or he really is by encouraging that child’s expressed interests. That is one surefire way to make sure that a child knows that you recognize him or her as an individual and that you approve of his or her activities or interests.

Remember, it is the child’s interest we are encouraging. As an adult, you can have your own interests. But just imagine someone at your work saying to you, “Wow, we really wish you could behave more like Jennifer.  She has all the good ideas.  We think she is tops!” Now, consider how a young child feels when an adult caregiver suggests that the child would be appreciated more or liked better IF he or she would just behave like this other person.  This type of communication assassinates the child’s spirit. It is a wound that will not heal. We must recognize that what we say as caregivers has a tremendous and long-lasting impact upon the child. With that in mind, let us just be more positive.

When a child performs a task, mention ever so slightly one thing you might appreciate about what he or she did: “James, the table looks very nice like that.  Good job.” or “Your bed looks very nice this morning, Alicia.” When the moment is right, all we need to offer is a clear picture of what we perceive so that the child understands that we accept his or her behavioral choice. If we ever expect a child to perform better, it will happen because we were willing to acknowledge the little things that a child does to contribute. After that, self-esteem takes off and the child is able to express him or herself with a positive self-image and the world is her or his oyster.

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Tags: Parenting

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