A harmful aspect of raising children in our high-pressure, "only A's are good enough," win-at-all-cost culture is that parents can inadvertently (or intentionally!) convey to their children that they are worthy of their love only if they live up to their parents' expectations. These messages create children who are "human doings," in which their self-esteem-how they feel about themselves-is overly connected with their accomplishments. This relationship between self-esteem and outcome becomes the basis for their own self-love as well. Having internalized their perceptions of being a human doing from their parents, children come to love themselves only when they are successful and experience nothing less than self-loathing when they fail. Unfortunately, human doings cannot be both successful and happy because, though they may attain some degree of success, their accomplishments bring them little satisfaction or joy.
This connection is so strong that human doings judge themselves not only on how they perform in important activities in their lives, but also on how they do in the most mundane tasks. They are so desperate for validation that they seek affirmation from the most trivial accomplishments (I had a client who judged herself on how well she brushed her teeth!). Human doings are often "list people" who wake up with a list of tasks and are not satisfied or happy until they have crossed every item off the list.
Children who base their self-esteem on what they do rather than who they are place themselves in a desperate and untenable position. Failure is a normal and inevitable part of life, yet, for these children, failure is absolutely unacceptable and a source of unimaginable pain. So whenever children who are human doings experience failure-as all children will at some point-they perceive it as an attack on their self-esteem, they feel worthless and undeserving of love. As a consequence, these children feel tremendous anxiety over the threat of not being loved and their primary motivation in life is to avoid failure and protect their self-esteem. These children live in a constant state of hypervigilance. They feel worthwhile only when they are doing something to validate their self-esteem. This ever-vigilant state that human doings are in causes them to feel as if they must be successful to be happy, yet, paradoxically, even when they are successful, they don't feel happy.
Are You a Bottom-line Parent?
If you are a bottom-line parent, you are placing too great an emphasis on the outcome of your children's achievement efforts. Bottom-line parents communicate this focus hoping to motivate their children, but often end up undermining their children's achievements because the weight of success and failure becomes too great a burden to carry. In addition, children of bottom-line parents are profoundly unhappy because they rarely can live up to their parents' expectations and, when they do, there is only a brief respite from the persistent fear of future failure.
Bottom-line parents treat their children like "little employees." These parents expect their children to "produce" in the form of achievement and success. If the desired results do not occur, then these "bosses" show their displeasure and their children may perceive that their parents will "fire" them. Imagine how that feels to children!
Create a Human Being
Your goal is to raise your children to be "human beings." Human beings believe that the kind of people they are-the values they hold, their efforts, how they treat people-determines their self-esteem and how they value themselves. Human beings gain satisfaction and validation not only from their efforts and accomplishments, but also from, among other things, being honest, considerate, and responsible.
Part of being a human being is accepting one's basic humanity, which includes understanding that no one is perfect and that failure is a necessary and inevitable part of life. With this perspective, failure loses its power to harm self-esteem. As human beings, self-esteem is not overly connected their achievements and, as a result, is not threatened. Children who are human beings are not, thankfully, perfectionists, have no fear of failure, and don't fear losing your love.
Being human beings doesn't mean that your children will be self-satisfied and unmotivated, just being happy with themselves and not caring about achievement or success. To the contrary, it liberates them from the fears of achievement because success and failure are not so connected to their self-esteem. Ironically, the removal of this threat to self-esteem that comes from being a human doing will actually allow your children to pursue achievement from a position of strength rather than weakness, in which they pursue success with gusto and can accept and find lessons and motivation in their failures. Your children experience none of the obstacles that human doings experiences that may interfere with their becoming successful.
Success Comes From Being, Not Doing
Contrary to what many people think, success is not really about what children do. In school, the arts, sports, and other achievement pursuits, no one has the market cornered on strategies that foster success. Children do pretty much the same things with varying degrees of success. Rather, true success, namely success that brings meaning, satisfaction, and joy, comes from being-who children are, what they value, their work ethic, and their ability to connect and work with others.
But being isn't sufficient to become successful; your children need to do to achieve their goals. But for your children to experience both success and happiness, their efforts-what they do-must come from their being, from who they are. Achieving as a human being is very different from achieving as a human doing; human beings efforts to achieve are imbued with who they are and what they value. Children who are human beings find meaning in their achievement efforts and they connect their passions and commitment to those efforts. In a sense, their achievement efforts are filtered through their being. The efforts that result are determined, confident, energized, and focused. And the successes that they experience are important to them and provide them with fulfillment and joy. Children who are human beings experience a sense of happiness in their achievement efforts because their efforts emerge from and affirm who they are. This connection between who children are and what they do is what separates children who achieve both success and happiness from those children who merely succeed or don't succeed at all.