I often say to the families I work with, “It’s takes a village to raise a kid.” I do not yet have biological children, so I will never profess to know what it is like to be a parent. However, I do have nearly two decades of experience working with children (first babysitting, then summer camps, then substitute teaching, then crisis intervention, and now, my independent practice).
All of my experiences with children thus far have led me to believe that it truly does take a community to raise a child. It takes teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, school counselors and other adults to raise a healthy, well-adjusted kid. If you work with kids in any way, you have likely had an affect on their upbringing. As kids get older, they tend to spend more time in school and in extracurricular activities and less time with their parents, which is why I say “our” children are always watching. While they may not be your biological children, if you are spending a significant amount of time around kids, then you can rest assured that they are watching you, too.
Why does this matter? Well, let’s look at a few examples below:
-A few weeks ago I had a teenager and her mom in my office. It was brought up that during dinner a few nights back, the rest of the family ate pasta while mom ate a salad with grilled chicken. Mom mentioned that the pasta looked amazing but she wouldn’t allow herself to have any because she is on a mission to lose weight. While this may not seem overtly harmful, adults talking about their diets and weight-loss often leads to children feeling highly dissatisfied with their own bodies.
-Many years ago when I worked for a crisis intervention unit, I performed an assessment on a young boy who said to me “My dad tells me that he loves me, but sometimes I hear him talking to my mom about how they would have more money if they didn’t have kids.” While dad surely did not mean for his child to hear this, the child now, unfortunately, can never un-hear it.
-On a more personal level, when I was in kindergarten, I did not follow directions on one of my assignments. My teacher looked at me and yelled “Are you stupid?!” To this day, looking back on that memory still floods my body with shame from head to toe.
-As another personal anecdote, I had a soccer coach in high school who always tried to have genuine conversations with me and made efforts to get to know me on a deeper level. She acted this way with all of the kids on the team. The respect that she had for all of us was palpable and we all felt seen and heard by her.
The list of impressionable moments that can change or solidify the way a child feels about themselves is limitless. What I’m trying to say is this: Kids are always taking in information, even when we think they aren’t. They are listening, they are observing, and most importantly, they are picking up on the feelings of the ones around them. If we’re not careful as adults, we can send dangerous messages to children that reinforce diet culture, low self-esteem, perfectionism, feelings of abandonment and being unloved, etc. All of this can ultimately lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
This is not a call-out to parents only, nor is it an attempt to parent-shame. We’re all doing the best we can and need to treat ourselves and others with compassion. Rather, this is a shout-out to all of the adults in this world, as most of us will find ourselves around children at some point in our lives. The next time you find yourself in the presence of a child/children, please make every effort to leave them feeling like they matter and that they are accepted; for this is how we start building self-esteem in children, which will have positive ripple effects on generations to come.