001. What Space Jam Can Teach You About Parenting Expectations
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In this episode I talk about the new movie Space Jam and reflect on how the father/son relationship evolves through the movie. I point out the underlying problems to commonly held beliefs about child development and educate you on how to be better than LaBron. Lastly, I explain how intergenerational trauma can impact your parenting practices and cause some of the same problems that are seen in Space Jam.
Here’s the thing. Your child is only going to be a kid for so long. They will be an adult for most of their lives. We need to stop worrying so much about having the perfect child because childhood is temporary. We need to worry about giving our children basic skills they will need to survive adulthood. Kids inherently know how to be kids. But most people don’t feel confident in being an adult.
The two most important lessons we can teach our children are to respect themselves and respect others. The best way to teach this lesson is when we respect our children. I watched Space Jam, the new one with LeBron James, the other day, and the moral of that movie was that the best parenting happens when we listen to our children. There will be some spoilers in today’s podcast, so if you haven’t seen the movie, pause this, watch it, and then come back. ….
Okay, did you watch it? What did you think? I totally cried at the end. Bugs Bunny has a special place in my heart. Also, I really wish Tweety had more on-screen time. Anywho, let’s talk about LaBron’s relationship with his youngest son, Dom, played by Cedric Joe. At the beginning of the movie, LeBron is told by his coach that he has the potential for greatness if he stays focused on his goal. This is similar to the stories of all the successful athletes. They put in the work every day in every moment and became superstars.
This is the mentality that LeBron puts into his parenting. He has expectations that his sons are going to enjoy and be as dedicated to sports as he is. But Dom is different, and he keeps telling his father that he wants to feel safe being himself and have his father respect his choices. From a psychological perspective when LeBron focuses instead on all of the things that Dom is doing wrong with basketball, poor Dom is invalidated and shamed, leading to a state of chronic trauma. That’s right. When we chronically deny our children the right to be themselves, we potentially are subjugating them to trauma.
This isn’t all children, some kids have more resilience than others and can move past it, but for a lot of kids, we see these small moments of invalidation over time lead to low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, depression, anxiety, and vulnerability to further abuse. All of which are seen in the movie. Dom becomes impressed with and latches on to Al G. Rhythm because he shows him kindness and validation.
The reality is that Al G. is manipulating Dom, and later in the movie, when the Goon Squad starts losing, Al G. shows his true colors and yells at and berates Dom. Let’s put this in perspective in terms of reality. I’ve had several clients who have been bullied by their peers and they accept these people into their lives because it’s not always that bad. There is a “honeymoon period” when the peer who is bullying them is actually is nice to them. And this fleeting kindness is what causes the child to stay in this fake friendship because they feel that suffering through this abuse with some kindness is better than complete ostracization by everyone else.
These children often feel like they cannot talk to their parents because their thoughts and opinions are discounted, and their parents love and care our them of course. Still, the parent’s expectations get in the way of genuinely seeing their child, listening to their child, and allowing their child to feel heard. When these kids grow up; there is a higher chance that they will be in more abusive or dismissive relationships and be more vulnerable to being taken advantage of and having mental health problems.
There are, of course, ways to reduce this risk and keep your expectations in check so that they don’t disrupt your relationship with your child. In the movie, we see that during the game, LeBron can take a step back from his expectation that basketball requires work and it has to be done a certain way. When he recognizes his son’s joy at being allowed to express himself and just enjoy the process of playing and exploring through the sport of basketball, he starts to understand who his son is, leading him to then surprise Dom by dropping him off at the computer camp instead of basketball camp.
In turn, Dom surprises his dad by saying that he’ll hold on to his basketball while he is at camp. And here is where we see that the pair have become closer because they took the time to understand each other and drop their expectations that things had to be a certain way. When we can step back as parents and take the time to listen, not problem solve, not dictate, not decide how things should go, but really reflect on and listen to the opinions not only of our children but also all people, we create an atmosphere where our children can learn to respect themselves and others. That is the goal.
If you are a parent listening to this and you have difficulty understanding your child, it is likely because you are holding on to preconceived notions of who you dreamed your child would be, not who they actually are. Living in the fantasy of your dream child or even reliving your dream childhood through your child is detrimental to your real-life child’s mental health and does more harm than good in your relationship with your child. This is not to say that you shouldn’t have any expectations, but think of them more like standards.
You should hold your child to certain standards, but they should be standards that your child can meet, and then slowly you would make those expectations more difficult to challenge your child and help ease their growth. There was a psychologist named Vygotsky who created this theory called the zone of proximal development that describes this perfectly. Your child has innate talents that will only go so far if they are left to their own devices to explore what they are capable of. Then there is a zone of growth that they can achieve with support from you, peers, teachers, and any other important person in their life.
If your expectations and standards are outside of this outer circle of your child’s current ability to do well even with your help, you will constantly be at battle with your child and pushing them into something they are not ready for and they, in turn, will feel worthless because they are unable to achieve a goal and start feeling they are a disappointment to you and not worthy of your love. If you recognize what your child is capable of doing and push them slightly past that with the expectation that they will need help to master that task, growth happens in a developmentally appropriate way.
In Space Jam there was a special move that Dom recreated in his game that his father had taught him. While Dom had not completely mastered this move himself, with his father’s support and reminders he could get closer to success. If however, LeBron expected that Dom would be able to do a slam dunk at the age of 10, that would be something way far out of Dom’s reach and cause more strife between them. A common example I come across in my practice is looking at a child’s ability to self-soothe or regulate their emotions. Question for you, how old do you think has to be able to have emotional control and self-soothe?
Parents tend to think that children should be able to control their emotions at much younger ages than they actually can. Children begin, and this is the keyword here, begin, so it’s just starting to form, to have control of their responses at ages 3-4 years old, but learning how to be in control emotionally, that’s a skill. It’s not innate knowledge, it’s a skill, and skills have to be taught. Now, this skill of controlling your emotions it doesn’t become fully developed in early adulthood. That’s crazy! There is a lot that can happen between 3 years old and adulthood that can impact the development of this skill.
Some of you listening to this may still be learning this skill yourselves. In fact, this is a skill that most people aren’t taught. Why? Because it is a skill passed down through family members generationally. So if your parents never learned how to self-soothe and control their emotions from their parents, then how are they supposed to teach that to you? And if you don’t know how to do it then how can you teach that to your kids?
What ends up happening, especially in families where one or more people have experienced trauma, is that the trauma response gets passed down instead of healthy coping skills. They tend to pass on reactive behaviors and trauma experiences, even if it is not what they initially intended to do, because it is what is taught in the family. There is nothing wrong with this because there is a reason that it exists.
Reacting to potential and real threats in a disorganized way is inadvertently taught in families like this as a survival skill. So it keeps happening because somewhere down the line the person or people in the family then learn how to survive or be able to continue to survive by behaving in this way that wasn’t beneficial in the long run but felt helpful at the moment. So they kept responding to similar situations in the exact same way. And by modeling these behaviors their children picked up those same habits and they trickled down through the generations. Until someone stops and recognizes, hey, what’s going on here? This isn’t actually working.
Then they can come to a therapist or other resource person who can teach them coping skills to reduce these reactive responses and that in turn will lessen the risk of continued trauma throughout the family. So this is why it’s really important if your child is in therapy, regardless of what their diagnosis is, you should also be getting some time of therapeutic support. Whether it’s engaging in a group therapy setting or even your own individual therapy, it can be really beneficial and help you to help your child.
That’s it for this week! If you are looking for more information about how to really listen and see your kiddo please check out last week’s podcast when I discussed a 3 step model to problem-solving collaboratively with your child.
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