How Much Validation Do Children Need?
by Nancy Monson
Picture these scenarios:
- Mom or Dad leaning over baby, tickling the little feet, admiring the beautiful face. “Come on Henry, smile, oh that’s so cute, look at that smile, watch how he looks right at me and smiles.”
- Mom or Dad, or teacher, watching child on the monkey bars: “Wow, look at what you just did! You hung upside down! That’s great! And you slid down the pole all by yourself! All right! Do it again!”
- “Rachel got straight A’s on her report card, made student council and is on the gymnastics team. She is such an amazing child. Oh, hi honey (Rachel walks in) you look so beautiful today. I was just talking to Marilyn about you. What happened at school today?”
Validation. We are constantly validating our kids. But where does real validation come from, and does our validating what they do really give them what we think it does? First of all, when are the times you remember feeling really good about yourself, that deep kind of contentment, acceptance, joy, fullness that has a very particular taste to it? Think about it for a moment. There is some quality of experience that is there, usually some kind of process of learning, or possibly having tried and failed and learned and finally gotten it. Or, it could just be a time when you were deeply relaxed, at home in yourself, and it came from nothing that you did, but just feeling yourself. Then ask yourself how often this kind of feeling comes from what someone else tells you as opposed to what you know and feel from within yourself. It’s nice to get praise, but more often or not, it isn’t what makes us feel secure or like we’ve done something truly well. That can only come from inside ourselves, not from anything someone tells us or gives to us.
What we do most of the time with our children is try to give them that validation that can and must come from inside of them. Watch what our constant stream of praise and too much attention does: it pulls them away from their own inner experience to what we think about them, away from how they feel and focused on how we feel. This starts as early as being an infant when we want them to smile at us, move for us and we praise every little thing they do and can’t leave them alone for a second. “Look what you are doing because it makes us so happy, it isn’t so important what might be going on inside of you that I don’t know about, it’s what I can see that matters” is the subliminal message even though we don’t know it. Let’s look even further at the results.
Why are children so focused on peer acceptance? Validation. I’m OK if I am liked. Our whole education system is one of validation through grades and testing. Our culture validates those who are good looking, have good jobs, lots of possessions and are successful. Where is the deeper understanding of what makes us feel ALIVE and life meaningful? I think we have forgotten this in how we educate children and we are seeing the problems in deep insecurity, depression, suicide, drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, violence and apathy. What will kids do to achieve the illusive sense of security and avoid the devastating feeling of failure or rejection?
What can we do to help our kids look to the inside for validation, for their deepest and truest security?
- First of all we have to look at ourselves and understand the dilemma. Where do we get our sense of security from? How much praise and attention do we need to feel good? How much are we dependent on it from friends, family, lovers, work, what we do and achieve? If we don’t look at it honestly it will be near impossible to help our children. We have to change ourselves first, or at least begin the work.
- From the time they are born, recognize the need for children to have time alone, to know themselves, to feel content just being and doing nothing. At Running River School every day we have alone time. We talk to the children about being friends with themselves, having time alone to feel, think, wonder, relax. At the beginning of the year it was hard for most of them, but by the end, they liked it and understood why we did it. Make it a ritual in the lives of your family.
- Ask questions, encourage, instead of praising. Help your children to turn back towards themselves to feel and look at a process and tell you about that, rather than focusing on just the external results.
- Recognize the need for failure, for mistakes, for stress. Help children set goals, take on challenges, engage learning that requires a process and delays gratification. We learn more from mistakes than from success. Thomas Edison tested over 2000 conduits for electricity in the light bulb, and he loved the challenge. Young kids have a natural love of challenge, but too soon they are taught in school that failure is bad, and they avoid it or are debilitated by it instead of understanding that life is a process, it’s all learning. Overprotection kills a sense of exploration and enthusiasm to fully live. Remember the story of Buddha being a prince in the pleasure palace and how bored he got. On the other end is too much stress, too much demand, too much focus on constant results. Look at what they are being asked to learn, do, achieve – does it have any real validity to their lives, any interest or meaning to them?
- Foster the internal development of qualities in your children, not just the external development of skills and talents.
- Give kids an eye for fine work, from the mundane to the complex (cleaning the bathroom, cooking a meal, building a boat, writing a paper, learning to paint….)not just praise them automatically because they did it.
- Stop spoiling them, more is not better. Less is better. Children often feel that more “stuff” means they are better, another form of external validation.
If security, love, trust, and self knowledge isn’t inside ourselves or our children it makes little difference what others say or do to try and get it to be there. Many parents face that painful fact when all of a sudden they see it lacking in their children. The will to live and to love life does come from the inside, and if you have it, it isn’t easily taken away. We can foster the development of this inner love of life by trusting that it is inside our children, and can take root in the right environment, and at the same time, finding it again within ourselves.
© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.
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