Giving Your Child “Voice”
(Earlier version reprinted as a guest column at The Natural Child Project)
If I asked you what children need in order to be psychologically healthy, you would probably answer: love and attention. Of course, you would be right–love and attention are essential for every child. But, there is a third psychological need critical to the emotional well being of children: “voice.”
What is “voice”? It is the sense of agency that makes a child confident that he or she will be heard, and that he or she will positively impact his or her environment. With this sense of agency comes the implicit belief that one’s core has value. Exceptional parents grant a child a voice starting the day that child is born. How does a parent provide this gift? By following three “rules:”
- Assume that what your child has to say about the world has value.
- Assume that you can learn from your child, just as they can learn from you.
- Enter their world through play, activities, discussions: don’t require them to enter yours in order to make contact.
I’m afraid this is not as easy as it sounds, and many parents do not do it naturally. Essentially, a whole new style of listening is required. Every time a young child says something, he or she is opening a door to their experience of the world–about which they are the world’s foremost experts. You can either keep the door open by responding in a welcoming way, or you can close it by assuming you have heard everything worth hearing. If you keep the door open, you are in for a surprise–your children’s worlds are as rich and complex as your own, even at an early age.
If you value your children’s experience, of course they will too. They will feel: “Other people are interested in me. There is something of value inside me. I must be pretty good.” Children with voice 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 more easily accept the inevitable frustrations and defeats of life with grace and keep moving forward. They are not afraid to try new things or to take appropriate risks. People of all ages find them a joy to talk to. And for their intimate relationships, they search out other people who are interested in listening in an honest and deep way.
Many well-intentioned parents think that they can create the same effect by saying positive things to their children: “I think you’re very smart/pretty/special etc. But without entering the child’s world, these compliments are experienced as shallow. “If you really felt that way, you would want to know me better,” the child thinks. Other parents feel that their role is to give advice or educate their children–they must teach them how to be worthwhile human beings. Sadly, these parents reject the child’s experience of the world and do psychological damage–often the same damage that was done to them.
Children who are not given “voice” often feel defective and worthless, even if they have received love and attention. Many of their behaviors represent an effort to counter these feelings. Depending on temperament and other factors, they may build protective walls, take drugs to escape, starve and purge themselves to “look better,” bully other children, or succumb to crippling depression and anxiety.
These psychological problems do not end with childhood. Many of the essays on this web site are devoted to the adult consequences of childhood “voicelessness.” These include narcissism, depression and chronic relationship problems. Much of the therapeutic work I do involves the exploration and repair of voice lost or unrealized in childhood.
But many of these problems are avoidable. Apply the “rules” from the moment of birth. Work hard at keeping the door to your child’s inner life open. Learn. Discover the richness of your child’s experience. There is no more valuable gift you can give your child–or yourself!