Who cares what other people think...? What should we really be teaching our kids?
It begins when we are very very young. As a crying toddler in a bustling restaurant or crowded grocery store, our mother says to us, “Stop crying, other people are looking at you.” Or we fall and skin our knee at a sports game, and our dad responds with, “Don’t cry, what will the other kids think?”
For most of us out there, our parents taught us in one way or another to worry about what other people think about us. They didn’t mean to hurt us of course; and I’m sure they never realized that what they were saying was directly impacting our sense-of-self. Unfortunately, it is this very thinking that leads us to struggle with self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It also creates a pattern of anxious thinking, especially in social situations.
Remember how nervous you got in school when you had to get up and give a report on whatever project you were doing at the time? Most likely, you weren’t nervous about what grade you would get or even what your teacher thought about your report – you were scared to death that you would do something that would make the other kids laugh at you and think that you were the most ridiculous kid in school.
And now, as an adult, how anxious do you feel before getting up to give a presentation at work, or speaking in front of your church, or God-forbid, being called up as a “volunteer” in front of a theatre full of people during that magic show you convinced your partner to go to because you thought it would be so fun? If you’re like me, the second it looks like the performer is even considering calling an audience member to the stage, you wish you could shrink in your chair and hide behind the seat in front of you – or better yet - if you just had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, all would be well. You could sit and enjoy the show without any danger of being made to stand up in front of other people, imagining all the ways they are evaluating you in their feeble minds, picking apart the clothes you chose to wear, how you styled your unruly hair, or if they’ll notice the bulge of blubber above the waistline of your
slightly too-tight pants. Except, this isn’t a real danger, is it? It’s not like the people in the audience are going to rear up, claws out, teeth gnashing together, and pounce on us, ripping us to shreds like a hungry lion out in the wild and prey-filled lands of the African desert.
Would you believe me if I told you that we are not meant to fear being in front of people? That we are not meant to have racing thoughts about how someone else might judge us? That these are not real dangers at all? Of course you wouldn’t – because you were taught from a very young age to be self-conscious and even fear what others think of you. And you were taught to believe this by none other than your parents – your protectors, the most important people in your life as a child, the people who made you feel safe when there were monsters in your closet. Yet, these amazing, all-knowing, and very well-meaning pillars of your life, were unknowingly making you feel unsafe and teaching you to believe in the “dangers” of what others think of you.
Now take your mind once again to one of those social-anxiety-provoking situations I mentioned earlier. Only this time, imagine that your mother simply hugged you when you cried that day in the grocery store. Or that she whispered in your ear when you started wailing in the restaurant that everything was going to be okay and then gently held your hand, guiding you out through the front door to a calmer place, so she could figure out what was bothering you so much without annoying those around you. Imagine that when you skinned your knee at the soccer game, your father took a quick look at it, gave you a hug, and said, “I think you’re going to live! Now get on out there and have fun playing as hard as you can!” How much of a difference might that have made on your self-concept, on your anxiety, and on how many times you wish an invisibility cloak were not just from a book?
So next time you automatically think it will be easier or faster to get your child to change a negative behavior by telling or modeling to them that they need to worry about what the people around them will think, remember the long-lasting impact it will have. Choose the way that might be a little harder, take a little longer, or even leave you feeling a little embarrassed. It might take you away from your delicious, warm, fresh-out-of-the-kitchen, Chipotle Crispy Chicken dinner when you gently take your wailing son to the open sidewalk outside the busy restaurant... Or it might make you feel slight less macho when you kiss the skinned knee of your son on the sidelines of the soccer field... Or you might feel embarrassed that yours is the kid that decides to have a meltdown in aisle 2. But, honestly, it doesn’t matter what the other patrons in the grocery store think of you as a mother for having a child who is crying in aisle 2. What’s most important is that you are shaping strong children who will grow to be confident and self-assured, able to tackle anything the world throws at them!