Sticks and Stones…

As a now mature adult, much of what I think of myself was formed from a very young age through my adolescence. In saying “what I think of myself” I mean,  not necessarily the man I’ve become but more so the man I believe the rest of the world sees. See, we have this opinion of ourselves and we also have an idea in the back of our minds that people see us a certain way. Both of these people – the self opinion vs. what people see – may indeed be the same self for some of us, while for others these two people are indeed entirely different. Why is that, you ask? Well throughout our lives we are constantly seeking approval and validation without even realizing it, it’s not our fault.  There’s a  subconscious conditioning that is programmed into us essentially from the moment we are born. Mom’s cutesy baby sounds while standing over us changing our diapers, Dad’s thumb’s up while approving us taking our first baby steps. The parade of relatives showering us with love and adulation, it’s a human impulse to show love for the newest member of the family, surely this is not wrong. Then we start to grow up and venture out into this wide world seeking approval from our peers, wanting to at least fit in and be liked throughout our school years to one day being accepted into the workforce and being approved of enough to carve out a career for ourselves. Validation and approval, acceptance or rejection?

I was watching an interview with renowned Wall Street investor Warren Buffett and the music icon JAY-Z the other day. At one point during the interview when asked the question about why he started his Sean Carter scholarship fund JAY-Z says how  a small thing changed his life and then goes on to explain how his sixth grade teacher once said to him “you know what, you’re kind’a smart” and he believed her “I’m smart, she sparked the idea in my mind” he said – The power of the spoken word to invoke positive thought, the power of the spoken word to spark to life, Mr. Sean Carter aka JAY-Z arguably the greatest rapper of all time.  Ok! So I’m sure there were and are many more factors that led to JAY-Z aspiring to become the man he is today but those words still live with him. Those words still live in his head, “you’re smart”.

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.
  – Yehuda Berg

I too, have a memory from my school years, to this day I still remember the praise that a teacher had given to me. “Mark, you have a vivid imagination” wrote Mr. Deeks.  I can still picture the words written on the side of my story after having had it graded. I forget what the story was about but today, some 30 some odd years later those words still live with me. The power of the written word.

Two examples of positive words spoken to children, children who still remember these words well into their adult lives. But what about when children encounter negative words at points during their childhood, do those words still live with us throughout our adult years. I tend to think that they do and I tend to think that the impact that they have on us is felt and manifested in exactly the same way that positive words are, albeit in an opposite manner. Moments of self-assuredness and confidence battling against self doubt and insecurity, I myself can attest. Having been a pretty good soccer player growing up, I was always told how good I was, always the one picked first when it came to making teams, there has never been a soccer field that I’ve been intimidated by. Seriously, as a 43 year-old playing against kids half my age I still feel like I can dominate. You can counter that soccer field bravado with my self image. Much of my teen years through early adulthood I wasn’t exactly full of self confidence, the dark skinned black guy with rubber lips is a phrase that comes to mind. A phrase that was not necessarily uttered in that particular way but it was a phrase that I had now associated with the person I looked at in the mirror everyday, “the dark skinned black guy with rubber lips” ? Trust me if you grew up in England in the 70’s and 80’s you are all too familiar with the term “rubber lips” – this is before it was considered cool to have full plump lips. So here I was, this person shaped by life experiences. So confident, arrogant and cocky in one arena. Yet shy, timid and retreating in another; all because of the words that I encountered in my youth. Perhaps if I was told, your skin is beautiful and your lips are fine I would not have felt so self conscious, perhaps?

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.                   – Napoleon Hill

I think I can speak for many when I say we don’t actively seek to have a negative affect on our children with the language we use around them but as a parent I can raise my hand and confirm that I am culpable for making a young one second guess his worth. I’ve shouted at my son, I’ve questioned his sanity(he was drawing on the wall with a crayon), I admit it! It’s hard to change the language and the ways we react towards our kids, it’s what we’ve been using our whole lives. But becoming conscious of it is a good beginning, becoming conscious of the fact that is could be negatively affecting your child’s sense of self is a start in the direction.

My son is growing up so fast and has recently started a new school. Everyday I’m seeing a change in him and it’s amazing to see your offspring becoming their own person. At the same time I realize that his world is getting bigger and bigger everyday. He’ll be taking in new information and hearing words all day everyday, words that may lift him up alongside words that may bring him down. Unfortunately I cannot always stop him encountering the negative, in fact I wouldn’t want to as I think there is a necessity for him to experience that also.  I can and will though, as his father always lift him up and with my words, give him a foundation of confidence, self assured-ness and validity. I will always let him know that he is somebody and he’ll always know that he is loved just the way he is.

We sometimes get caught up in grand gestures and believe that they speak for the love of our child. The mega Christmas gift, the lavish birthday parties, the toys, the gadgets, the dolls, the cars, I could go on and on, it’s all well and good providing the material things for our kids but from my own experience nothing will live in your child’s mind longer than the spoken word, so make an effort to ensure that those words encourage, empower and lift up your child. You never know, you could be making it one less dark skinned black guy with rubber lips and one more music maestro like JAY-Z, don’t forget to tell him how smart he is.

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