Hal is now 6 and two months and writing thank you letters is a frustrating business. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
This morning, before breakfast, Jo sat down with Hal to write a couple of long overdue Christmas thank you letters. The deal was that he had to write the letters before he could watch any TV and at first all went well. Halfway through the second letter though, Hal hit a snag. He wrote a word with a couple of letters backwards. Already frustrated by the length of the task, he couldn’t cope with Jo telling him he had made a mistake. ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ he wailed, hurling down his pencil and he then buried his head in his arm and refused to come out.
‘Come on Hal, you’re halfway through already.’ Jo tried encouragingly. No response. ‘You won’t get to see your programme.’ Still nothing. I was watching all this and I had an idea. Fetching a thank you card a friend had sent him I tried a comparison. ‘Hey Hal. Look at your friend’s letter. Your writing is much neater than his. His is all over the place.’ Hal sat up immediately. He looked at the friend’s card and at his letter. ‘Yeah, it is all over the place,’ he said, puffing up with pride. And he immediately settled back down to his letter and finished it.
This little strategy made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of comparisons very much even if they are ones in Hal’s favour. Any psychotherapist knows that low-self esteem is one of the most common issues that people bring to therapy, and experiences of being on the wrong end of judgements and criticism in childhood often play a large part in the growth of feelings of inadequacy. So am I making a mistake by trying to use comparison as a means of motivating Hal? Am I setting him up to be thinking in terms of comparison all the time?
One immediate thought is that he thinks in comparisons anyway, and he didn’t get it from us. Boys of Hal’s age are often (perhaps usually?) competitive with one another. ‘You’re rubbish at football.’ ‘I’m better at running than you are.’ How many times have I heard comments like this being slung around between Hal and his friends? And they never seem to result in more than a momentary dip in morale and certainly don’t seem to get into his basic self-belief.
But what about if an adult makes an unfavourable comparison? Won’t that be damaging? Again, I think the answer is no, because the key thing is not the comparison, but the underlying feelings. The adults who come into psychotherapy with deeply entrenched beliefs that they are worthless very often were parented in a way that made them feel that whether they were worthwhile, whether they were lovable indeed, depended on their achievements. When it feels as if love is conditional on results, that is when the real damage happens. I might continue to use the odd comparison in an effort to motivate Hal. But as long as it doesn’t touch his sense of being loved and valued I don’t think it is going to hurt him.
For the Hal’s Reading Diary archive, visit www.booksforkeeps.co.uk and go to ‘browse by category’.