Life is an unending journey of learning and discovering the intrinsic value of human spirit and individual dignity. Thoughts and attitudes create a mental climate. Our ability to enjoy life as successful individuals is determined by the ways we develop our built-in capabilities in the growing up years.
Parents significantly affect how children measure life’s true values. Children intuitively sense how they are valued by their parents. When parents give mixed signals; children develop mixed feelings and become confused about what is valuable. These mixed messages leave them confused, especially if they haven’t discovered that when the behavior and the words don’t match, believe the behavior—it is much easier to lie with words than with behavior.
When faced with mixed messages, at some point one has to choose which to believe: the words or the behavior. Young children are naturally inclined to both believe and trust their parents, but when the parent’s behavior doesn’t match their words it creates cognitive dissonance in the child that must be resolved. There are two ways to resolve that dissonance: the child must either redefine the parent’s words so that the behavior and the words now match, or keep the definitions intact and cease to trust the parent. The choice the child makes will stay for his/her entire life…or at least until he/she does serious re-examination of the choices and beliefs to restructure the entire set of beliefs and values.
Some common Mixed Messages are:
- Ask me anything…Not right now
- You can tell me anything…But not that
- Hands are not for hitting…Except when I spank you
- It’s not OK to yell…Get in here! (said while yelling)
- Always tell the truth…Let’s say you’re still 3, so you can get in free
- I know you two can work it out…That’s it, you’re both grounded
- You’re always playing that video game…Just a minute, I’m on my phone
- Whatever you’re feeling is fine…Settle down! Stop being so angry!
- It’s Ok to make mistakes…You spilled the milk again!!
- You don’t have to be perfect…a “B” on this test, what happened?!
- I love you no matter what…Go away, I’m so frustrated with you
- Regularly use foul language, but turn around and punish them for the same.
- Tell our kids they are out of control if they have a tantrum when they do not get their way, yet when things do not go as we would like we raise all hell.
- Tell kids not to be lazy, but have them grab the remote from the other side of the room for us.
- Spank them for……..hitting, someone.
- Tell them they spend too much time on tv, video games, etc…, but are constantly on smartphones, laptops, and tablets ourselves.
Mixed messages often carry a deeper significance. For example, if the father says “I love you, now leave me alone, I’m busy,” the child will take away that whatever the father is doing at the moment is more important. If it happens virtually every time the child goes to the father for attention, she/he eventually gets a message that says “everything in the world is more important than you are. Everything from football on TV, to taking a nap, reading a magazine, to talking on the phone—everything in the world is more important than you are.” The child subsequently learns that bringing him the remote or fetching his phone earns a moment of attention and maybe even a bit of praise and affection. And the seeds of low self-esteem and co-dependent, people-pleasing behavior take root very, very early.
The children who chose to resolve the cognitive dissonance by deciding not to trust may carry a different but equally dysfunctional legacy and show a host of adult dysfunctional behavior. They don’t trust anyone and maybe controlling, possessive, jealous. People who don’t trust can be difficult to live or work with; they may be secretive and suspicious, and ready to believe the worst in anyone on the thinnest thread of suggestion. They may even take pride in their lack of trust and see it as a virtue to be nurtured and developed, taking offense at the notion that an inability to trust is something to be corrected.
We must be the legacy we want our children to follow. Good or bad, they will usually follow in our footsteps. The best gift we could ever give our children is a good example. Their path will be much easier when they have already seen someone else walk it. It takes a brave parent to examine the little parenting quirks that may be lurking in the day-to-day interactions with their children. If you’re ready to clear up some of the communication in your house, now is a good time to start. Pick one or two mixed messages to focus on at first. It’s not going to be easy. Give yourself permission to fail a few times before you start to make a more consistent change. No parent is perfect. No child is perfect. No family will have crystal clear communication all of the time. It is an ongoing process.