Negative ways of thinking can impact on the development of children’s self esteem so Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, is keen not to be an over ambitious and pushy parent.
‘I’m about in the middle in my class, and I think that’s about right.’ Hal made this announcement, unsolicited by me, on the way to school the other day. Now Hal can, in some situations, be a competitive boy (‘I’m way better at football than him, he’s rubbish’ is the sort of comment we sometimes get) so I wondered if he was happy with being a middling sort of guy in class. Yes, he told me, he was. There were some distinct benefits. In English lessons, for example, the class is split into three groups. The top group has to learn 20 words to spell each week, the middle group 15 and the bottom group 10. Hal didn’t like the idea of being in the lowest tranche – a bit too demeaning for him – but on the other hand he was very much in favour of avoiding the extra work that the top set had to do.
I had slightly divided feelings about Hal’s middling status and his happiness with it. There is a bit of me that wants my son to excel. A pushy parent bit that never really goes away. And I certainly am very keen for him to be a trier. I wouldn’t want him to be in the middle if its laziness that caused it. But far more important than these thoughts is a fear that I have of Hal growing up to feel that I am in any way disappointed in him. If he started to see himself as a failure because he’d let me down by not being in the top set I’d be mortified. There’s been a fair bit in the press recently about ambitious parents forcing kids to do long after-school hours with tutors to get them into better schools. And whenever I read these pieces I imagine miserable kids, missing out on having a childhood, and the belief forming in their minds they are only worthwhile if they can achieve.
I’ve mentioned before that probably the most common issue that I come across in my psychotherapy patients is chronically low self-esteem. People who perceive themselves as failures (though they always have qualities and abilities that they can’t value). How such negative ways of thinking about yourself develop is a tricky question, but in almost all cases what you experience when you are growing up is critical.
An important part of the answer is found in neuroscience and what it tells us about the brain. We have different systems in our brains which give us different ways of experiencing things. Our rational appraisal of life events happens in the brain cortex. But our emotional experience happens in another part of the brain, the limbic system. Research suggests that a pivotal emotional experience in childhood fires up the limbic system in a way that makes key aspects of the experience lodge permanently in long term memory even though, confusingly, the event itself may be forgotten. What this means is that in adult life, when we experience something that offers parallels to the early event, we experience it with the emotions of a child while not remembering the early traumatic experience that triggers the adult reaction.
So, to get a bit more concrete, a child berated by a parent or a teacher for not being good enough at school may suffer an overwhelming emotional response in the limbic system. Later in life, the same person may experience something like, for example, not getting selected in a job interview, as a catastrophe while someone who hasn’t had this early experience imprinted on them would view not getting the job as a completely manageable disappointment. The adult experiences not getting the job with the emotions that the child felt about failing at school.
Because of this I desperately don’t want Hal to have experiences in which he feels he has catastrophically failed. Or where he feels he has disappointed me. One of my greatest hopes for Hal is that he can love himself. And so I really don’t very much mind if he is happy to be a middling sort of boy. In my book the man of middling abilities who likes himself is far better off than the gifted neurotic. And I’m happy Hal only has 15 spellings to learn a week.