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Hidden Messages


What we say: "You can cry all you want, I'm not going to pick you up again!"

What we think: "This is breaking my heart but all those experts can't be wrong."

What the child thinks: "They don't love me. They don't care about my suffering. Mommy is perfect, so there must be something wrong with me. I must not be worthy of anybody's love."

What we say twenty years later: "What on earth do you see in Tom? How can you let him treat you like that? Don't you know you deserve better than that?"


What we say: "No more nursing - you're too big for that now!"

What we think: "I'd like to continue, but I just can't stand all this criticism from my relatives."

What the child thinks: "I've just lost the most important thing in my life: the long periods of cuddling, and the food that felt best inside me. I must have done something terrible. I must be a terrible person."

What we say twenty years later: "Why are you drinking so much?"

Age 2

What we say: "You can't come into our bed any more. You won't be lonely. Look, here's a nice big teddy bear to keep you company!"

What we think: "Grandma thinks there's something wrong with having you in our bedroom. I'm not sure what it is, but it's more important for us to please her than to please you. Anyway, this teddy bear should make you happy."

What the child thinks: "It isn't fair! They get to cuddle with a real person. They don't know me very well. They don't care about my feelings. Oh well, at least they gave me this bear."

What we say twenty years later: "I know you're upset that Tom broke up with you, but is that any reason to over-charge like this on your credit card? Will all this stuff make you feel better that someone left you? When did you get so materialistic?"

Age 4

What we say: "You know you're not supposed to hit your brother! I'll give you a spanking you'll never forget!"

What we think: "There must be a better way to handle this, but it's what Dad did, so it must be right."

What the child thinks: "I was so upset with my brother I hit him. Now Dad is so upset with me for hitting, he's hitting me. I guess it's okay for adults to hit, but not for kids. I wonder what I should do when I get upset? Oh well, one of these days I'll be an adult myself."

What we say twenty years later: "A bar room brawl? Adults don't hit people just because they're upset. I never taught you to resort to violence!"

Age 6

What we say: "Well, this is a big day for you. Don't be afraid, just do everything your teacher says."

What we think: "Please don't embarrass me by acting up at school!"

What the child thinks: "But I'm afraid! I'm not ready to leave them for so many hours a day! They must be getting tired of me. Maybe if I do what the teacher says, they'll like me better and let me stay home."

What we say twenty years later: "What?! Your friends talked you into taking drugs? Do you do what everybody else tells you to do? Don't you have a mind of your own?"

Age 8

What we say: "Your teacher says you aren't paying attention in class. How will you ever learn anything important?"

What we think: "If my kid never amounts to anything, I'll feel like a failure."

What the child thinks: "I'm not interested in the things the teacher talks about, but I guess she knows best. The things that do interest me must not be important."

What we say twenty years later: You're 28 years old and you still don't know what you want to do with your life? Aren't you interested in anything?!"

Age 10

What we say: "You broke another dish? Oh, never mind, I'll wash them myself."

What we think: "I know I should be more patient with you, but at least this way the dishes will get done."

What the child thinks: "Boy, am I clumsy. I'd better not even try to help any more."

What we say twenty years later: "You want that job but you won't even apply for it? You should have more faith in yourself!"

Age 12

What we say: "Go out and play with your friends - you'll have more fun with them than hanging around here all day."

What we think: "I know I should spend more time with you, but I've got so much to do. It's a good thing there are so many kids around here."

What the child thinks: "I want to do things with Mom and Dad, but they're always too busy. I guess my friends like me better."

What we say twenty years later: "You never call us or come to see us any more. Don't you care about our feelings?"

Age 14

What we say: "Please leave the room, dear. Your father and I have something personal to discuss."

What we think: "We have some secrets we'd rather you didn't know about."

What the child thinks: "I'm not really part of this family."

What we say twenty years later: "You're in prison?! Why didn't you tell us you were having problems? Don't you know there are no secrets in families? We tried so hard. Where did we go wrong?"

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc. is a parenting counselor, director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.