A Critical Error in Parenting (Don’t Make the Same Mistake my Mom Did!)

My mother told me that I’m no longer allowed to say negative things about her on this site. I believe the exact words were “stop humiliating me you ungrateful…ingrate!” I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’ve bashed her – see here as evidence – but she threatened to post pictures of me as a child on her new, as yet un-launched website, UngratefulRob.Com. Apparently she has photos of me as a toddler going through toilet training and such, so I’m going to at least consider her wishes going forward.

All that said, I would like to point out just one parenting mistake she made when I was a young boy. Recently I was sitting in a restaurant at a small table with a friend. Next to us was a family of five: two parents and three very loud, boisterous and, quite frankly, annoying little kids. The parents seemed mildly embarrassed by the whole scene but not to the point they were going to leave or do anything about their children’s behavior. I’m guessing that parents in such a situation don’t get to go out all that much, and they weren’t about to have this rare opportunity go to waste.

My mom, while not a strict disciplinarian, taught me at an early age that it’s important to be polite and, more importantly, reasonably soft-spoken when you’re in any restaurant that isn’t Chuck-E-Cheeze’s. It’s a good rule to live by, especially when you consider the negative stares these parents were getting from all the other adults in the restaurant. But while it was paramount to be a good patron, my mother stressed another but dangerous and erroneous concept: make sure you eat everything on your plate.

Apparently this was a pretty common philosophy in the 70’s and 80’s, before obesity became one of America’s biggest, or at least most noted health problems, and lots of parents employed it. I remember times when I ate beyond satiety to win praise from my mom and even the waitress. “Oh, what a good boy you are!” the server would say in that patronizing way kids are often addressed. “You’re just so, so good, aren’t you?”

“Oh yes,” my mother would agree as I stared at the waitress with contempt. “He’s very good. You did such a great job. A good boy eats all his food.”

Why is praise of this nature a bad thing? Shouldn’t children be commended for their actions?

Her words promoted a direct link between global self-esteem and a highly specific behavior (in this case, a very unhealthy one). The message is “you need to do this to be a good person.” And so what if I didn’t eat all of my food? Did that make me a bad person?

Kids who grow up with these conditional messages often become adults who are validation seekers, those who consistently need the approval of virtually everyone. They become people pleasers with an all-or-none life view. When they do positive, pro-social or successful things, they see themselves (and others) as “good.” And when they screw-up, they are “bad.” This is a very difficult way to live life because it doesn’t allow you to be fallible and still be a person of worth.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they ask family members to separate the illness from the person. It’s a medical model that promotes the notion that a person is not simply the cumulative behaviors associated with drinking. Whether you believe this take or not regarding alcoholism, I ask you to consider a life philosophy where all people, no matter what they do (or do not do), are worthwhile simply because they exist.

This was the approach advocated by the late, great Albert Ellis and he was one of the happiest people ever. He asserted that while behaviors can be either pro or anti-social, the person is not the sum of those actions and deserves unconditional acceptance, simply because he lives and breathes. In other words, he judged the behaviors of both himself and others, but not the people themselves. This allowed him to hold people accountable for their actions, but his philosophy dictated that they were always viewed as people of worth. And so if he had actually believed that a child should eat all of the food on his plate, he would have said, “Rob, you boy genius, you are wonderful. It would be great if you ate everything on your plate. That would be excellent and, if you do not, there may be consequences. But no matter what, you are a person of worth.” What kid wouldn’t feel good about that?

I was lucky that my mother clarified her position about self-worth over the years, allowing me to focus more on my homicidal rage instead of my own esteem. But many people never get those messages and can only see self-esteem as a product of action, something that has to be earned. Whether you are millionaire or poverty-stricken, educated or ignorant, pretty or ugly, you don’t have to earn anything regarding self-worth. It’s a right that comes with living.

Most of you who read this site are under 25 and don’t have kids of your own as of yet. But when you do, consider the mistake my mother made. Don’t repeat it, because your kid may become a blogger who writes a little bit about his family. And you know how that can turn out…

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14 Responses to “A Critical Error in Parenting (Don’t Make the Same Mistake my Mom Did!)”

  1. Rob Dobrenski says:

    Test comment for new site…

  2. Hannah says:

    Great to see you posting again.
    Can’t wait to see those baby pictures. ( I do hope she comes through with it )
    Wow, I think you are actually working on the site as I read and post. Cool

  3. It is important for people to understand that you can support a person, but not support some of the BEHAVIORS of that person. I sometimes have to remind myself of this when I run into difficult patients who are good people who choose to do bad things.

  4. suicidaldude says:

    Oh well, guess we just have to shrug off these rude people and deal with it. I try to not let it get to me.

  5. […] reality, the visual cue of seeing the food prompted her to eat more. This phenomenon is related to this post I wrote about the horrible parenting philosophy of “eat everything on your plate.” The results of the […]

  6. Natalie says:

    I am a single Parent raising a young daughter with a bully problem. I dont get time to even go to her school. Any suggestions how I can counter that?

  7. Anonymous says:

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  8. Dependable says:

    Thanks for posting this, very good stuff.

  9. Hamed says:

    In this world, finding good parents is not easy, but thanks for the great read.

  10. escaperoad says:

    I had the opposite message – don’t eat much. worse, “she can eat that, but you can’t.” i think either approach can be similarly damaging, and to your point, encourage a vision of self worth that is externally focused. unfortunately, i’m in my 30s and can’t really point the finger at my mother now for continued inability to indulge in pizza. but fortunately, there is some damn good pizza out here. so i get a lot of practice in doing it differently. helps that my friends like to say, “what? no PIZZA?” love the reality checks.

  11. Adrift says:

    Agreed. Best advice I ever got from my favorite professor (who is socially phobic and has also been known to make people cry in class) is to separate the concept of “bad people” from people who do bad things. I have also reinforced that concept in my work with offenders which showed me that there is no such thing as a bad person. Except may be for psychopaths?

  12. Camicia says:

    My parents never told me to eat everything on my plate, but told me that I had to take at least a bite of every thing, especially if it was something I’d never tried before. I’m absolutely certain this is why I’m as awesome as I am.

  13. Seviah says:

    My parents encouraged me to try everything. During an era when children weren’t taken out to fancy restaurants, I was. I learned that indeed the food I was treated to was that which wouldn’t soon be available again. Related was my Jewish grandmother, I was to eat HER food, but to diet on my own time.

  14. Seviah says:

    I somehow got my daughter to enjoy several Halloweens and a trip to Hershey Park without realizing the secret her shiny packages held.