and Ten Things You Should Say
by Chris Becker, Ph.D.
We’ve all seen the self-help articles organized around numbered lists: “Ten Steps to Inner Peace,” “Ten Habits That Will Make You a Millionaire,” “Seven Ways to Improve Your Marriage,” “Four Techniques for Beautiful Curly Hair” (inevitably followed by “Five Techniques to Straighten Your Curly Hair”). For some reason, we find these lists irresistible. Perhaps it’s because they hold out the promise that taking control of our lives is within our reach; we just need a simple guide.
I thought I’d start out with a little humor before we turn the page to something serious and sad. And I hope those “Ten Things” did get your attention, because my list – “Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Child” – is really important.
Why? At first, it might seem obvious. Of course we should be nice to children! Everyone knows that! But the fact of the matter is, we’ve got a problem, a very big problem.
I’m referring to childhood trauma. This topic is addressed by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rather euphemistically as “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Haven’t heard of these? Most people haven’t, even though ACEs are the largest contributing factor to disease and sickness in this country. It turns out that an estimated two-thirds of Americans have been unloved and injured when we were defenseless children. And personally, I think two-thirds may be an underestimate.
What exactly are ACEs? According to the CDC, ACE is the term for any abuse, neglect, and other trauma experienced by people under the age of 18. These can take many forms, not only physical and sexual abuse, but also emotional abuse which is behavior that damages a child’s emotional well-being and sense of self-worth; this may include actual abandonment, threats of abandonment or violence, shaming, name calling, withholding love and physical affection, and other forms of psychological maltreatment. Many children suffer ACEs before they turn four years old, during their pre-memory and/or pre-verbal stages of life. Some traumatic experiences are more subtle than those officially defined by the CDC as ACEs – persistent behavior “correction,” for example, or the consistent dismissal or criticism of emotions. Even these experiences are harmful, undermining a child’s belief that they are welcomed in this world just the way they are.
The consequences of ACEs are severe, including much higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, overeating, compulsive sex and other forms of addictive behavior; cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; depression, anxiety, suicide, and unsafe sex. Adults who have suffered traumatic experiences often end up with what is known as insecure attachment style, where conscious or unconscious fear contaminates their relationship with their partner, causing instability and unhappiness.
My good friends, calling this a public health crisis is not an exaggeration. And if two-thirds or more of you reading this have suffered ACEs, then what? I talk at length in my upcoming book about what we as adults can do to heal. But for now, we turn our attention to prevention, and that brings us back to our list. Being aware of what not to say, and to say, can be an important start for reducing childhood trauma for the next generation.
Here’s my list of ten things not to say to or about a child. I can think of others but there is a lot of power in this list.
Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24).
You are born with original sin.
Children should be seen and not heard.
Go to your room until you feel better.
What’s wrong with you?
Shame on you.
I’ll leave if you keep doing that.
Honor thy father and mother (Leviticus 19:3).
You’ll notice that I began and ended the list with quotes from the Bible. American childrearing philosophy is heavily rooted in Puritan ideology and biblical concepts. Societies with strong Biblical root—like the United States—just don’t have the attitude that babies come first. We pay lip service to the idea that children are important. But we generally do not say, “Drop everything; the baby is crying.” Or, “There is nothing more important than my baby, my child.” Or, “I will treat my child with complete honor and respect.” Or, “I bow down to the beauty and innocence of my baby.” None of the Ten Commandments address how to love or raise our babies and children.
There are many, many ways to hurt a child. It is easy to recognize patterns of physical abuse, such as beating, slapping, and spanking. But there are endless less-obvious forms of abuse, too. Even “progressive” parents can injure their children without realizing it. For example, they might be aghast at the thought of spanking their child, but frequently use time-out—actions of isolation and rejection—as a way to “manage” their child’s behavior. Of course, there are many non-verbal ways to hurt children as well. Shooting disapproving glares, or simply looking away when your child wants you to see them, can cause emotional damage.
Let’s conclude on a happier note. There are endless positive, loving things we can say to our children. I’ll list a favorite ten of them here:
You’re precious to me.
I love you so much.
I’m glad you are here.
I see you.
I respect you.
Your needs are important to me.
You are special to me.
You can turn to me for help.
I’ll keep you safe.
The first commandment reads, You shall not have any gods before me. In order to protect and nurture our young, perhaps we should rephrase this command, saying instead: My baby is God. But don’t say this merely as motivation to work hard to be a good parent or caregiver. Rather, say this in the understanding that it is the literal truth.
Thank you for reading. May you have an opportunity to brighten a child’s life today.
Chris H. Becker, Ph.D.
For information and other resources, see the Adverse Childhood Experiences page on the CDC website including links to the original journal article, select subsequent studies, and other resources, see https://tinyurl.com/CDCstudyACE
Felitti, Vincent J et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245 - 258.
Healing with Psychedelics by Chris Becker