By Tom Gagliano
When my son was nine, we were watching a baseball game together on television. As the camera panned over the cheering fans, he asked me why the kids in the stands were so excited. I said that the players are heroes to those kids. I suggested that someday one of those players might be his hero. He paused and said, “They may be my hero someday, but you will always be my first hero.” I was so touched, I could not reply.
As parents we are our children’s first heroes, whether we want the responsibility or not. We can give our children the message that when they make mistakes in life, they will not be mistakes themselves.
Our childhood messages, verbal and non-verbal, are ingrained deep within. As adults we try to repress them, deny them, manipulate the truth about them, even medicate them, but eventually the denial fails and the messages resurface. These messages affect our lives in several ways. The intimacies we have or don’t have, our ability to cope with life’s struggles, the financial decisions we make or don’t make — even our parenting skills — are affected by these messages. If the messages are not exposed, an inner critic develops in our thinking. This inner voice will torment us until the truth of these messages are brought to the light. Only then can we free ourselves from the power these childhood messages have in influencing our behavior. The good news is even if we came from distorted messages in our childhood we can still give our children the healthy messages denied to us. What was the message given to us when we made mistakes as children? Were mistakes an opportunity to learn and grow, or did we internalize them, making ourselves mistakes? If our caregivers had tough inner critics that didn’t allow them compassion when they made a mistake in their childhood, then they may have passed on their inner critics to us as children without even realizing it. There are times we all stumble in life, and if we deny ourselves compassion when this occurs, we negate a part of our humanness. In short, do we allow ourselves to make a mistake, or do we make ourselves into mistakes as a result? Can we fail at times, or do we make ourselves failures?
Without self-compassion it becomes difficult to accept constructive criticism from others. We may begin lying when we are wrong as the pain of being seen as defective becomes overwhelming. Part of being a parent is guiding our children through their difficulties with the experiences we’ve gained in life. As they walk through life they need to feel that mistakes are part of the process, an opportunity to learn. If not, they may refuse to allow us to help them when they should falter. We need to give them a safe environment where they can share their feelings instead of acting out their feelings
Here’s an example of the ways I’ve achieved this with my children. This was taken from my book, “The Problem Was Me.” Several years ago we had to put our dog to sleep. Our oldest son was the same age as the dog, and he was very attached to her. As we returned from the veterinarian’s office, I noticed our son was sad and withdrawn. I asked him if he was okay. He said, “I’m fine dad.” I asked again, “Are you alright?” He replied, “I’ll be alright.” Instead of walking away, I hugged him. I put his arms around me and placed his head on my chest. After a few moments he started to cry. As his tears started to intensify his grip on me tightened. At that moment, I knew I was providing my son a safe haven. The message I relayed to him that day was that to cry in the arms of his father is acceptable. I never had a safe place to go as a child, but my son does. He knows he can make a mistake, it doesn’t mean he is a mistake. These are the messages I want him to carry to future generations.
Thomas Gagliano is a high profile leader in self-help therapy. He has helped developed unique methods and procedures which have helped numerous institutions and individuals in the greater New York area. Having been featured as a key note speaker at a number of meetings and conferences in the tri-state area, he is a regular on the speaking circuit. Tom is a graduate of Seton Hall University and has a bachelor’s degree in Marketing. He graduated with an MSW from Rutgers University and his book, “The Problem Was Me” was also released that same month. He has added a life coach to his resume in January of 2012.