And here, right at the start, I have to confess something. I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Generally when I write something to share with you good readers, I like to come from a position of some knowledge, personal experience, and understanding. But I simply don’t comprehend where my son’s behavior comes from, and I’m writing this in the hope that by discussing it here (and hopefully eliciting your comments) I can penetrate the murky waters of this – to me -most unfathomable phenomenon.
To be clear, my son does not engage in any form of physical self-abuse – he doesn’t cut, scratch or otherwise physically harm himself. Generally speaking. (He will, on occasion, smack himself on the head.)
For example. After-dinner treats in our household are contingent upon having had a good dinner – not only eating enough of what’s on the plate, but eating a variety of things as well as not making your parents ask, again and again in increasing exasperation, “Will you please eat your dinner?”
So, a fairly typical after-dinner exchange:
D [the son]: Can I have a treat? No, I didn’t finish my soup. [See how he anticipates and then self-imposes denial?]
Me: You ate almost all of it, go ahead and get yourself something.
D: But there’s still a lot left on my plate.
Me: No, D, there’s not. You had a good dinner. You can have a treat.
D: I didn’t eat all of the potatoes.
Me: Oh, fachrissakes, just get yourself a treat you whimpering, sniveling little sod! [No, no, that’s just what I’m thinking. I actually say something more along the lines of…] Well, it’s up to you. I’m telling you that it’s okay for you to have a treat, but if you don’t feel good about it, I’ll leave that decision to you.
All right, so this is a petty bit of self-inflicted atonement for a crime uncommitted. Perhaps it’s nothing more than him fishing for approval and affirmation. A minor martyr complex underpinned by shaky self-esteem.
For example. While sword-fighting with his little brother, he accidentally cracks the midget on the cranium. Little brother begins to cry. Now here’s the thing. When I was a kid, my mind would have immediately begun spinning out stories, extenuating circumstances, justifications – the sun was in my eyes, I had a muscle spasm and the stick flew from my hand, high winds, planetary convergences, and he started it, anyway.
D, on the other hand, will begin to berate himself and even, on occasion, smack his own head in a febrile fit of self-reproach.
For example. The classic case of spilled milk. D knocks over a full glass at the dining room table, and we all jump up to grab towels and clear the mess.
He’s disconsolate, reviling himself for his stupidity and slobbering abject apologies over and over as though his mother and I are going to burn him with cigars and toss him down a well, when what we’re actually doing is telling him not to worry, accidents happen, it’s no big deal.
At times it becomes almost intolerable, this self-flagellation, and we have to say, “Look, don’t punish yourself. If you’ve done something worthy of punishment [which is almost never], we’ll punish you. That’s our job. So if we’re not punishing you, don’t punish yourself.”
Aha, you say. I think I’ve got it. The boy suffers from low self-esteem. Well yes, I’ve thought this before and this composition confirms in me that yes, of course he does. That’s not the question. The question is why. And the follow-up question, of course, is: How do we fix this?
The why I find difficult to uncover. We’ve never heaped him with undue praise (which actually can act to lower self-esteem). We’ve encouraged him to be independent and to take reasonable risks. We’ve allowed him to follow his own pursuits, accomplish his own tasks. We’ve done almost all of the things that the parenting experts say you’re supposed to do, instinctively and without having read any of the mountain of available advice. (The funny thing is, I only read parenting magazines and sites when I’m doing research for a post. In retrospect, maybe I should seek advice about how to build a barn door before the horse has already escaped.)
Still, as a parent, I can’t but feel that I’ve done something wrong, failed my son in some inscrutable yet important way. Perhaps I have. (But I’m not going to beat myself about the head for it, literally or metaphorically.)
- I’m going to give him more responsibilities around the house. We’ve assigned daily and weekly chores before, but they often slip by the wayside and are forgotten. I think that when kids are given tasks and are able to carry them out, they feel responsible, confident, and accomplished.
- I’m going to sit down with him at least a few nights a week to study Spanish together. Not only will studying together provide us with a shared goal, but as his skills improve he will feel good about his few-found abilities.
- I’m going to get him into martial arts lessons. While I have a certain antipathy towards pushing kids into doing a million extra-curricular activities and believe that it’s actually detrimental to spread them too thinly, learning a skill thoroughly and performing it at a high level is a great way to feel good about yourself.
So what do you think? Does this seem reasonable and rational or am I missing something here? Do any of your kids ever punish themselves unnecessarily? If so, what did you do? I’d love to hear your stories and, please, your advice.