The Power of Perception

I am not what I think I am.
I am not what you think I am.
I am what I think you think I am.

This is a quote I have heard in various forms over the years. I believe this quote speaks to a powerful truth. I did some research to figure out who to attribute it to, but the answer wasn’t obvious. Possibly Aaron Bleiberg, Harry Leubling, or George Mead.

I was meeting with one of our nannies recently and getting caught up on her life. Her husband is currently doing his residency at Spectrum Health and has received some very positive feedback in the last few weeks about his “doctor skills”. She mentioned that those encouraging words have really motivated him to keep working to do his best while putting in the crazy-long hours.

Here is a guy in his mid-twenties who is motivated to work hard because others believe he is a good doctor.  I am what I think you think I am. In light of this quote, he is working hard to be a great doctor because he thinks others think he has the potential to be a great doctor.

On the other hand if someone important to you thinks you are worthless, there is also a good chance you will also prove them correct – living “down” to their expectation.

As parents, its sometimes easy to focus on our child’s weaknesses. Our goal is to help our child to overcome those weaknesses so that they can live a full life. However, thinking about that focus in light of the above quote, makes it clear that we can easily have a negative impact on our child’s view of herself. If she hears a lot of talk about how she is messing up, failing, and not good enough, she will likely think that we think that she is not very special.

In reality, this may not be the case at all. We may see her many admirable character traits and have a very wonderful opinion of her. But based on what she is hearing, that is not what she concludes. I am what I think you think I am. This can obviously be a downward spiral because as she begins to live down to the low view she thinks we have of her, we redouble our efforts to focus on those areas that she needs to improve upon.

Our goal should be to constantly look for ways to affirm the positive qualities and actions we see in our children, so our children make those positive aspects a larger and larger part of their identity.

Of course, every child has weaknesses and areas that definitely need improvement. Its important not to blur the line between identity and actions – “you may have made a bad choice, but you’re a great kid.” This approach avoids implying that you think he is lazy, stupid, sloppy or weak. Instead, you address the negative actions and acknowledge that those actions are not acceptable. You confront the behavior in a way that avoids belittling the child.

All of us are going to be critical of our children at times and make statements with negative implications that we did not intend. Children are resilient and can overcome remarks we make when we are tired or not thinking.

The question to ask yourself is what is the overall message that you are conveying as your child is trying to figure out what you think about him. The older children get, they will ask this question of more and more people as they form their personal identity. But no matter how old your children are, their identity will be significantly shaped by what they think their parents think of them.

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