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Column: Children bring message of hope

by PhD & Amy Paris
| January 6, 2011 7:28 PM

My mother often liked to say, “every generation is an improvement.”

Usually this refrain came in response to my looking for her approval and encouragement for some endeavor on my part. It gave me permission to succeed in areas where she did or could not.

Children have a healthy hunger for approval and encouragement. In Martin Seligman’s book, “An Optimistic Child,” he writes well of the basic nutritional requirements of raising healthy children. For every constructive criticism of a child, find 10 things that our children are doing right.

We now know that the growth of healthy self-esteem needs love and approval and the experience of positive learning. Old beliefs about children taught that too much admiration for children might encourage vanity and a lack of ambition to achieve goals. Children might become lazy and uninterested in accomplishing things when too much adoration and applause is freely given.

While limits and boundaries are also equally needed to keep children safe until they can safely navigate in the world on their own, and with respect for others’ boundaries, poor self-esteem leads to painful self-doubt and lack of motivation to work hard for their goals.

It is so painful that it can lead to poor self-care, depression and anxiety, and therefore less energy and ability to go out and achieve our goals. Healthy self-esteem and the healthy growing of empathy and the capacity to love results in a happier and more productive human being.

The self-esteem is the heartbeat of the personality. It gives us resilience when we fail and confidence to keep getting up when we fall. And fall we all do while we learn how to navigate through the successes and failures of life.

I believe most parents know how important this kind of encouragement is but many of us are faced with our own self-doubt and negative thinking.

This is the basis of the new movement known as positive psychology.

It involves recognizing our own beliefs and fear-based thoughts and replacing them with more positive, hopeful and encouraging thoughts.

I certainly saw how my own mother struggled with self-doubt despite the good she created. So, we also know that because parents are human, it takes a whole village to raise a child. This is great news as parents are often painfully aware of their mistakes and limitations.

Children have unlimited capacity to receive love and encouragement from all the people entrusted to their care. The studies of resilience in children raised in difficult circumstances always points to the presence of supportive adults somewhere in their lives during the critical and vulnerable years of growing up.

In therapy, the support and encouragement of a therapist is part of the cure and the more it is missing, the more critical this emotional nutrition becomes. It gives us confidence and hope that we can make changes in our lives, face challenges and land on our feet in the hard times.

It tells us we have some worth and value in the world.

This message of hope that good will prevail is the legacy and the gift for the world that children bring us.

I like to say parenting is so challenging it always brings out our best and our worst. We find stamina and love we never knew we had so much of and we find our limitations … impatience, frustration, fear expressed as anger … really any stress or wounds in our lives not being handled.

So, children bring us hope and both good and not good news about our own mental health. With that knowledge, there is also the hope that we can go about fixing and improving ourselves, including how to be better parents. And in that endeavor nothing inspires a person to be better than love.

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(Dr. Amy Paris is a psychologist and Lincoln County office director for the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Libby).