Recently I read an article about Adam Phillips, the wonderful British child psychoanalyst. In it he was quoted as saying, “There’s nothing to you until someone sees something in you.”
At first I wondered, is this really true? Don’t we know ourselves and know what we are capable of even without someone else noticing? And then I remembered my developmental training. In studying child development, I learned that it was eye contact with the parent that helps the infant to settle down when agitated or frightened and it is through eye contact with the parent that infants learn social regulation. In fact, the greater the amount of parent-infant eye contact, the better the social regulation of the infant.
So, quite literally, from the very beginning babies need to be looked at by the parents.
I also remembered that later in development, at ages two and three and four, the greater the ability of the parent to “see” and to admire their child, the more likely it is that the child will feel worthwhile and known. The child of this age who feels admired and valued by the parent will incorporate these feelings into their own sense of themselves as admirable and valuable. This is the basis for self-confidence.
All two and three-year-olds will say, “Look at me!” and what they need is for the parent to see who they are and what they are doing – and then to express admiration. Children of all ages want to know that they are noticed, that they are valued and that their particular abilities are appreciated.
Thinking about this raised the question of what exactly it means to “see” your child and to let your child know that they have been seen.
And I remembered a family I saw in my practice many years ago. The father was a self-made man, the first boy in his extended family to go to college and the only one to ever go on for an advanced degree in medicine. When he had his own four children, he wanted the same success for them that he had had. He valued education and he wanted his children to do well academically. Of his four children, it was clear that his two favorites were the two who were most academically inclined. One of the others showed signs early on of being artistic. She loved dance and painting from her earliest years. While her father was loving and well meaning, he did not understand her. He projected onto all of his children his own wishes and values. What had made him successful is what he wanted for them. As a result, his artistic daughter felt misunderstood and “unseen”. She did not feel valued by her father and while talented, she eventually lost faith in her own artistic ability. She became an angry and unhappy teenager. She was furious with her father, although she did not exactly know why, and she had very little confidence in herself.
This father wanted his daughter to be like himself. He was not able to love and appreciate her as a different sort of person. Of course, his desires for his children came from a loving place; he wanted his children to be successful in life. But unbeknownst to him, in not being able to value his daughter’s unique talents, he contributed to her lack of confidence in herself.
So one important element in “seeing” our children is to be able to see them for who they are, not for who we want them to be, to value their unique character traits and abilities, and to reflect our appreciation of them – just as they are – back to them.
But how do we do this?
It occurs to me that there is no one simple answer to this question – but there are some starting points.
First of all, to be truly “seen” children need to feel that they are understood. Every child needs to feel that their parents know what they like and what they don’t like, what is easy for them and what is hard, when they are making an effort and really trying and when they are not. And every child needs their parents to be able to be with them for prolonged periods of time and accept their interests and their way of being. This is related to something talked about all the time these days – being “present”.
Being present with a young infant, a toddler or a young child means just being there with them as they do what they are doing. It means being able to hold back on our own projections and agendas and just to be. Is your baby lifting up his head during tummy time? Can you take joy in this moment with him in his effort? Is your two-year-old collecting rocks? Can you be with her and collect some too rather than hurrying her along or telling her to drop them because they’re dirty? Is your four-year-old drawing a three-armed man? And are you able to comment on how interesting this is rather than saying “but people have only two arms?”
To allow our children to “see” something in themselves, to feel confident at least some of the time, and to move forward in development, we must first be able to “see” them clearly and be able to love and admire what we see. Secondly, we need to be able to be present with them as they are and to put into affectionate gestures and words how much we admire them.
This is the beginning of what we need to do to truly see our children and to allow them to become people who see something valuable in themselves.
And while we’re at it, we all need to try to expend some effort on “seeing” our partners and our friends as well. We need to acknowledge more often that we appreciate their unique selves and that we value their efforts. Just saying, “You are such a good cook and you made a great dinner tonight even though you were exhausted” or “Thanks for making the effort to call/text/email” will go a long way.
After all, we ALL need to know that we have been seen.