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Last week I wrote about a miscommunication between my daughter and me. It happened years ago, but she brought it up recently in conversation, referring to it as a time I had “crushed a dream.” I call it a miscommunication because, at the time it happened, I had no idea how important her desire was to her, and she mistook an initial no for a final word.

My first pass at learning from this miscommunication focused on how I had underestimated my influence on my young daughter. It got me thinking about how easily we parents say that our kids lack respect, when this situation shows that the opposite is truer.

Further reflection has revealed another lesson. My daughter’s sweet, (to me) comical error makes me wonder about childhood programming altogether. It suddenly seems flimsy, even accidental. Could that awareness make letting it go easier when we realize it is holding us back?

The Scientist in the Crib

The brain is a prediction machine. As soon as they’re born, infants start learning the world, so they can predict how to be successful in it. “How do things work around here?” they want to know. Research psychologist Alison Gopnik, who studies how even the youngest children think, calls a baby “the scientist in the crib.”

They get a lot of stuff wrong, though. They look at the dots and – due to inexperience, not lack of intelligence – connect them incorrectly. It was an episode of This American Life, “Kid Logic,” that first brought this phenomenon to my attention. (Listen! It’s delightful.)

These incorrect conclusions can be funny and harmless, like when I used to believe there were tiny people who lived in the speakers of our car and talked or played music for us. (Is this any less plausible than the existence of invisible radio waves?)

More problematic are incorrect generalizations. For example, my daughter generalized, “Mom won’t love me if I do that,” and “People who do that are stupid.” Adults (including me) walk around with these misbegotten beliefs, letting them guide our lives while being hardly aware of them.

Update Your Thinking

Maybe you got some feedback that was meant to be specific, and your mistake was in making it a general principle. Maybe your parents actually meant you to learn it, but as advice it has not aged well – it was true for them or their generation, but not for you and yours. Or it was true for a child, but not for an adult.

When you bump up against the limits of a childhood belief – when you notice that you are suffering to any degree – ask yourself, “What am I thinking and believing right now?” The answer to that question may present itself conveniently as a sentence. It may also be a fragment – a single word, an image, a shard of a memory or flicker of emotion. Even if it’s subtle, trust it.

Now be the scientist again and interrogate it from your adult perspective. Ask:

  • Can I be certain it’s true? Parents are not infallible. Sometimes they get things wrong!
  • Is it absolutely true? Children need rules in black-and-white. Adults can handle nuance.
  • Does it serve me? What effect does this belief have on my life? Does it truly keep me safe? Or does it hamper me unduly? Am I equipped now to handle a little risk?
  • What update would serve me better? Turn the thought around to something that feels like a better fit for who you are now. For example:
    – “I need to please you” can become “I need to be in integrity with myself.”
    – “If I accept a compliment it means I have a big head” can become “It is gracious to accept a compliment.”
    – “I can’t let them down” can become “I do good work, and it’s okay to push back when I’m given too much.”

With your life experience and standing in your own power and authority, you can question childish thinking and update it for the adult you want to be.


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