One of the most important psychological factors in raising a
family is giving children "voice." What is
"voice"? It is the sense of agency that resides in all of
us, that makes us confident that we will be heard, and that we will
have impact on our environment. Exceptional parents grant a child a
voice equal to theirs the day that child is born. And they respect
that voice as much as they respect their own.
How can you give your child "voice"? There are three
- Assume that what your child has to say about the world is just
as important as what you have to say.
- Assume that you can learn as much from them as they can from
- Enter their world through play, activities, discussions: don't
require them to enter yours in order to make contact.
It is not easy to follow these "rules." Parents who are
still trying to make their own voices heard due to injuries from
their past often are unable to do it without help. Indeed, they are
likely to impose their voice, and demand children listen to them. If
you listen to the subtext of these parent-child relationships it
becomes clear that the child is taking care of the parent. Sometimes
the child feels like a prisoner, because they cannot say what they
really feel, only what their parent wants to hear. Other times,
children who have never been given the chance to develop
"voice" act out, build walls around them, take drugs as an
escape, etc. because they feel all alone in the world, and the
anxiety and/or depression they feel as a result is unbearable.
It is extraordinary that the most important job in the world,
raising a child, is an untrained position. Many parents deceive
themselves about the quality of their parenting skills. Parents
sometimes compare themselves favorably to their own parents, and
indeed they often do a better job. But what is often necessary is
not just doing a better job, but stepping out of the box and seeing
the parenting role in a completely different way. Very few parents
can do this on their own. This is why counseling is so essential to
many parents and parents-to-be. Clients often learn that their voice
was not heard, and they are struggling to regain agency by having
their children listen to them. Tragically, this "backwards
parenting" can be passed on from generation to generation.
It is important to start applying the above rules from the moment
of birth. A child begins learning voice early in life, and if the
critical period passes and the sense of agency has not developed, it
is difficult and sometimes impossible to restore. The ensuing panic,
hopelessness, and aloneness can last an entire lifetime. Much of the
therapeutic work I do involves the exploration of voice lost or
unrealized in childhood.
What do children with "voice" look like? They have a
sense of identity that belies their years. They stand up for
themselves when necessary. They speak their mind and are not easily
intimidated. They accept the inevitable frustrations and defeats of
life with grace and keep moving forward. They are not afraid to try
new things, to take appropriate risks. People of all ages find them
a joy to talk with.
If parents do not enter a young child's world, but instead
require him or her to enter theirs to make contact, the resulting
damage can last a lifetime. In "Voicelessness: Narcissism," I present one
way adults react having experienced this scenario in childhood: they
constantly try to re-inflate their leaky "self." However,
different temperaments spawn different adjustments: some children,
by their very nature, are incapable of aggressively seeking
attention. If no one is entering their world, they unconsciously
employ a more passive strategy. They diminish their voice and try to
please their parents with their lack of demands.
As adults such people are gentle, sensitive, and non-assuming.
They are also generous and caring, often volunteering for charitable
organizations, animal shelters, and the like. Frequently they feel
other people's pain as if it were their own, and are wracked by
guilt if they cannot somehow relieve this distress. To most, they
seem model human beings. Unfortunately these qualities are the
direct result of having little or no "voice," and their
voicelessness can cause them considerable pain.
Every parent should strive to give their young child voice. Look
at yourselves honestly: if you can't follow the three rules, get
help as soon as possible. It is not shameful. With hard work, you
can break the intergenerational cycle and give your child (and,
ultimately, their children) this wonderful gift.