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I knew there was something wrong when my stomach started to hurt every morning before school. It is true what they say, that the mind and the body are intimately connected.
As a young child, I would often spend my summers in India visiting my grandparents. And since the summers were long, my ambitious parents would enroll me in school so I could soak up all the education that I could get.
This summer however, was different. What I was feeling deep in the pit of my stomach was dread. The new friends that I had met the first day on the school bus had warned me about a certain teacher who would ‘punish’ them for making mistakes.
I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal until I witnessed it myself. Whenever a student would do poorly on a test or answer a question wrong in class, this teacher would make that child sit in the corner of the classroom. Then from her desk, she would systematically point out to the entire class everything that child did wrong and sometimes she even went so far as to call that student names such as ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’.
When it happened to me, it was one of the first times that as a young child, I felt incredibly alone and ashamed of who I was. This wasn’t physical abuse, but the words cut just as deep.
Did this method of teaching through shaming work to inspire us to do better? In fact, it did just the opposite. Not only were we scared to speak in class, but oftentimes the dread of going there caused many students to miss school. They, like me, had that painful feeling in the pit of their stomach.
It has taken me more than thirty years to understand that what I felt during that summer as a young child, was a deep sense of feeling disconnected. Because of one class, I felt like this school was a place where I did not belong.
And now as a pediatrician, I have seen this same disconnected feeling being perpetuated in families. Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health showed that school connectedness and parent-family connectedness was protective against emotional distress, violence and substance abuse.
What our children need the most from us is a sense of belonging. They need to know that not only do they belong with us, but in our home, they will not be shamed.
So how do we develop a sense of belonging in our own home?
1) Express appreciation
We all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of appreciation. It may not happen enough in our lives, but when it does, it lifts our soul. It has the power to shift our internal dialogue. Sometimes it changes our perspective at work when after a long week, our boss acknowledges and thanks us for how hard we have worked. And sometimes it comes from our loved ones for being an integral part of their lives.
To be valued and appreciated is a basic human need.
My greatest story of feeling connected through appreciation comes from Haiti. It was a few months after the devastating earthquake when my husband and I went there to provide medical relief. The destruction that I witnessed was unimaginable. And when the days got long, I often felt helpless wondering how I as one person, could make even a small difference in the tremendous amount of suffering that we had seen.
It was on one of those days near the end of our stay when a young girl hugged me and said, ‘thank you for everything you have done for me and my family’. It was such a simple gesture but it made me feel seen, loved and valued. Here I was trying to help someone who had suffered so much and yet, her suffering had not taken away her ability to express appreciation. I felt an immediate connection to this beautiful country and it’s people.
My daughter is only two, but every day before she goes to school, I remind myself to tell her how thankful I am for her and how much I love her laughter. This morning appreciation has become a daily ritual. I want her to feel so valued and appreciated at home, that she won’t have the need to look for it elsewhere.
2) Remove words of shame from your home
When I was young, we used to repeat a saying that went like this: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
As an adult, I have come to realize how untrue this is. Words have tremendous power. They can not only hurt, but they can leave wounds that develop into lifelong internal scars.
The truth is that our children can frustrate us at times. And every time I find myself getting frustrated, I have to take a moment to remind myself to be careful of the words that I speak.
I used to say to my daughter phrases such as ‘you are bad’ or ‘you are naughty’. And now that I have taken some time to reflect on this, I instead say, ‘you are not listening today’ or ‘you are not behaving well today’.
I want to imply that these behaviors are not who she is, but something temporary that she has the power to change. I want her to always know that who she really is resides in a place of love and worthiness.
3) Encourage your child’s vision of success
The greatest lesson I have learned about what success really means has come from being a witness to my brother’s journey. We were raised in a south asian community where the expectation is for most of us to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. For some of us, our vision for our own lives aligns with that of our community. But for others who follow a path that has been chosen for them and is inconsistent with who they are, emotional angst and suffering ensues.
What I admire most about my brother is that from the very beginning he marched to the beat of his own drum set. From the days of him as a young child where his room was a shrine to all things sports, I knew that this was his true passion. He knew what his music was, he deeply understood his soul’s calling. And he bravely and persistently pursued it.
Today, he works in coaching for college basketball. Every day, he wakes up inspired, doing what he truly loves to do.
This is what I want for my child. It would be the greatest tragedy if she did not play the music that she was called here to play because I had a different dream for her.
Our children need us to encourage their vision of success. They need us to show them that they belong with us for who they authentically are.
As Dr. Shefali Tsabary said,
“When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature.”
I often wonder where that summer school teacher is today. I now understand that she was probably doing what she thought was right based on the tools that she had been given.
Now, I have a chance to turn it around. It was because I felt so disconnected that summer that I know what it feels like to be valued and to feel worthy. I can use that pain to make sure that my child grows up in a home where she always feels like she belongs.
And this is how the world is changed. One child at a time.