The Gifts and Curses We Pass Down to Our Children

Dawn Bevier

How to use them to bring out the best in our child, the best in ourselves, and build a stronger parent-child relationship

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As a teacher of more than twenty years, I cannot tell you how many times I or other teachers have made the comment concerning children and their parents that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

For example, the straight-A students’ parents are often vigilant and anxious about their child’s academic performance — as vigilant and anxious as their children are about each daily assignment given and each grade earned.

The students who are apathetic often also seem to follow in their parents’ footsteps. For example, I called a parent to let them know that their child was failing, and the response I got was, “I can’t do anything with him. To be honest, I’ve stopped trying.”

The frequency of these experiences got me thinking about the influence we wield over our children’s personalities. For quite often as a parent, I see my own fears, drives, and habits reflected in my children as I watch them go about their everyday lives. And I have discovered that my ways of dealing with myself and the world around me result in a complicated puzzle of both blessings and curses that I bring into my children’s lives.

Particularly, I this most clearly in my own “mini-me,” my fourteen-year-old daughter Bella. She has the same drive for excellence that I do, the same introversion, the same love of makeup and books, and the same anxiety.

For example, she was recently offered a spot in her school’s National Honor Society due to her extremely high academic excellence. But she never turned in the application to secure her place in this prestigious group because it required community service activities. And she had none.

Why?

She prefers to stay mostly to herself and read books. Like me.

I also wonder if her love of makeup is somehow connected to my own low self-esteem about my appearance, a trait she also shares.

An imaginative artistic spirit, an introverted bookworm, and an anxiety-ridden human being. This is her. And this is me.

And I bet if you look closely enough you’ll also see the blessings and curses that you bestow upon your own children.

So here are a few tips on how to make these bittersweet offerings to our children work a little more in their favor (and in our own).

Encourage the positive aspects that you have handed down to your children.

As I mentioned, my daughter is a bookworm. She reads at an eleventh-grade level and scored in the 99th percentile on her Reading Comprehension Test at school. Whenever she achieves these reading milestones, I remind her how proud I am of her and what wonderful qualities that she is building through her love of literature.

For example, one of her favorite series was Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. We discussed the mythology throughout this book and I commented on how rich and valuable this knowledge would be for her in school. I also laughed and told her a lot of the older sophomores she so fervently worships have no clue about the gods and goddesses she already knows so well when I teach them Homer’s complicated text The Iliad.

She beams when I give her these words of praise, and this enhanced self-esteem reinforces her love of reading and the intellectual gifts it gives her.

And you can do the same for your own child.

First, ask yourself what positive qualities you believe you have passed down to your child. Is it a good work ethic? A strong spirituality? A love of pets? A penchant for kindness and selflessness? A great sense of humor?

Then, make the most of these shared traits.

For instance, say you see your own gift of grit mirrored in your child. Reinforce this virtue by complimenting them with words such as, “I know schoolwork can be hard, but I am so proud to see you taking so much care to do a good job” or “I know that team you played was amazing, but I was so impressed to see how you never gave up even when the odds were against you.”

Children remember these words and use them as “nourishment” when peer pressure, social media, or the like challenges them to embrace a more negative mindset towards these behaviors and actions.

As family therapist Gary Smalley says,“ Affirming words from moms and dads are like light switches. Speak a word of affirmation at the right moment in a child’s life and it’s like lighting up a whole roomful of possibilities.”

And as a teacher, I can back up the validity of this statement because I have seen words of praise literally work miracles on my own child and the children I teach in my classroom.

Build on the fact that you and your child share the same virtues with bonding activities.

Another quality that I share with my daughter is a love and gift for all things fashion and makeup.

For example, every Saturday, we go shopping and discuss the latest fashion trends. We joyously head into stores like Sephora, where we paint ourselves in myriad colors and try out different lip glosses and perfumes.

These moments are extremely special. For instance, I find precious moments during our feverish experimentation to tell her how beautiful she is even without the make-up we so gleefully glop on our faces or the new lipstick colors we smear on our lips. As we “play,” she also tells me tips and tricks from the beauty gurus she sees on YouTube. In these special outings, we share some of the fun of being a female, but even more importantly, we engage in valuable conversations about where “real” beauty lies — in kindness, compassion, and sensitivity towards others.

So find ways to do the same with your own child.

For example, if your child is an animal-lover, read a book on pets together or go to an animal shelter, adoption event, or zoo, and discuss the creatures you see there.

If your child is kind and displays a desire to help others, take them to places and create events where they can build on this trait. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Cook a meal together to take to a family who is in need or is grieving. Sign up for an “angel tree” and pick a special child of a financially needy family for which to buy toys at Christmas.

By doing these things, you are not only building on the positive aspects of your child’s “inherited” virtues, but you are also solidifying your personal bond.

Attempt to help your child overcome any shared bad habits by working on yourself and being honest about your struggles.

I’ve created an introvert. I’ve also probably handed down, genetically and otherwise, my child’s struggle with anxiety. (Don’t you love it when nature and nurture combine to join forces against you and the ones you love most?)

So when my daughter first came to me with anxiety’s tell-tale symptoms — a racing heart, chest pains, and difficulty breathing — I knew she was having a panic attack. After all, I’ve lived with them my entire life.

What did I do? I let her know she was not alone, and that I understood what she was feeling because I also suffered from anxiety. I told her some of the ways that I work to overcome the issue and then mentioned that maybe we could come up with some ways to defeat these feelings of anxiety together.

For example, I discussed the things that triggered my attacks and asked her to share her own triggers with me. Then, I told her we were a team and that we would work on our shared problem together.

And the same strategy may work for you.

Ponder what negative traits or behaviors you have unintentionally passed down to your own children.

Maybe you have passed down the habit of eating as an emotional coping mechanism. Maybe your bad temper has created an anger issue in your child. Maybe your fear of being alone has caused your child to cling to toxic friendships or unhealthy romantic relationships.

Say for instance you notice that your inability to control your anger is a problem manifesting itself in your child. Address the issue head-on.

When you see your child’s negative behaviors, admit that those same behaviors are a problem for you. Share honestly with him or her about the ways that this bad habit or behavior has hurt you either physically, emotionally, or in relationships. Then, ask your child to do the same.

By admitting your own failings, you make your child less defensive about their own bad behavior and you also make it more likely that he or she will come to you when he or she struggles with this shared “demon.”

Make a pact that the two of you will work on fixing things together. Sit down with your child and brainstorm the ways you two can eliminate the detrimental actions. Admit your own triggers for the unfavorable action and have your child identify his own. Talk about past scenarios in your life and your child’s where the negative trait displayed itself. Discuss how you both could have handled these situations in a more positive way. Then, conjure future scenarios and have a conversation about how you and your child might handle them in more successfully.

Just as soldiers bond in war because they fight a common enemy, you and your child become more intimately connected when you confront shared battles together as a team.

The bottom line:

As parents, we should be constantly aware that our actions, words, and behaviors have a profound effect on our children. The things we do can bring them marvelous gifts to share with the world or horrible burdens that they must fight in their everyday lives.

But by capitalizing on our own strengths (and our child’s) and by admitting our own weaknesses, we motivate and empower our child to do the same. Our praise will keep him or her heading in the right direction, and our honesty, humility, and grit in addressing our own weaknesses will be the force that inspires our child to do the same.

As journalist Joyce Maynard says, “It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.”

So give your children the best of you, and they will give the world the best of themselves.

I wish you luck on your continued journey as a parent; wish me the same, for this job we have is the most important one a person can hold.

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Sanford, NC
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