Written by: Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, Certified CEO Effectiveness Executive Coach
Is there any experience as humbling as parenting? Simply keeping one’s children reasonably well fed and clothed and sheltered takes time and money and effort. Add to that the desire of most modern parents to ensure that their children receive a decent education and pick up some practical life skills along the way, and now the feat becomes even greater. Love should be a given, the easiest and most natural part of parenting of all, right? Well, yes, in a way, but every parent knows how very difficult it is to behave consistently in an unconditionally loving and patient and nurturing manner. And now, Dr. Bill Anton tells us, there’s even more to it? As parents, he suggests, we’re also responsible for our children’s mental models—the way they see and interpret the world around them?? No pressure!
One of my professors in grad school must have understood how the messages we send as parents—both explicit and unspoken—have a profound impact. He wanted his daughter to understand how very lucky she was, and therefore would continue to be, as her life unfolded. He knew that if she saw herself as fortunate, she’d be more likely to interpret everyday events as reflecting the beneficence of the world around her. And, he wasn’t above manipulating her environment to allow for the expression of those messages. One day, walking in New York City, my professor surreptitiously dropped a $20 bill on the ground where his daughter was sure to stumble across it. When she did in fact see it and bend down to pick it up, he exclaimed at her luck, remarking on how the best things always seemed to happen for her!
Most of the lessons children learn from their parents are less engineered than in that example, but many of them are similarly positive. Examples of positive mental models that result from one’s experiences with one’s parents include beliefs, sometimes unconscious, such as “Others are trustworthy,” “Life is meant to be enjoyed,” and, “Things always seem to work out for me.” Less positive mental models, which typically result from children’s inevitable need to adapt to less-than-ideal environments, include beliefs such as “I need to keep others at a distance so I won’t get hurt,” “I must always be in control,” and “If I don’t pay close attention, people will take advantage of me.”
And then there is the kind of mental model that I consider a “mixed bag,” one with both significant upsides and significant downsides. Among the executives we coach, here is a particularly common one: “It’s critically important that I be the very best.” Not my best, mind you, but the best. Why is this belief a double-edged sword? Because it provides a very high level of motivation for achieving ambitious goals while simultaneously making it almost impossible for the individual to feel satisfied with current levels of accomplishment, no matter how significant they might be by objective measures. This particular mental model is so common among the high-level executives that I coach, in fact, and can be created so predictably, that I like to joke about it with new parents. If you want to ensure that your child becomes a driven (and neurotic) over-achiever, I tell them, here’s the formula. One day your child will come home with four A’s and one B. Ask them what happened in that class. It works like a charm.
But in addition to all the ways in which as parents we can—and inevitably will—go wrong with our own children, there are plenty of ways in which we can “go right.” Dr. Anton has in fact provided a very optimistic framework for thinking about how parents can positively influence their children’s mental models. It’s all about options, it turns out, and about broadening how one thinks about oneself and the world and the people in it. Certainty is so rarely a vehicle for growth. So while I know I have a great deal of room for improvement in my parenting, I feel more confident now that one of my most common responses to my children is fundamentally sound; when they present me with a dilemma they want me to solve (e.g., “My sister called me a dumbotron,”), I will continue to ask them, “What are your options?” And I will trust that at least at some level, they will be internalizing the message that they are in charge of their own destinies, and that there are always options from which to choose. Even if the response I get in the moment is, “Well, I could punch her or I could kick her.”