I always feel uncomfortable when parents ask their children to smile, sing or dance for me. The child RARELY complies and quickly retreats. If I see that they are uncomfortable and the pressure doesn't stop, I say, "You don't have to sing that song, I don't mind."
Pressuring or requesting children to perform for the approval of others is one way that babies and young children are objectified.
When my daughter, El, was only three-months-old, we went to visit a friend. Before I knew what was happening I said, "Can you smile for Julie?" I needed her to witness how incredible my smiling baby was! When El did not smile, she replied, "It's okay, I saw her smile already."
Guilty as charged.
When she began doing this adorable head-swaying-dancey-bob- thing, I found myself singing crazily, trying to get her to dance for our guests and family. I commanded her to shake shake shake and clap clap clap to encourage her to show-off all the fun things she does in the comfort of her own home. It was as if I was trying to sell her.
The desire for other people to see my daughter as likable and charming is stronger than I could ever imagine.
When El encounters casual acquaintances or new people, her instinct isn't to smile and engage, but to stare with a neutral expression or even sport a frown for extended periods of time.
She contemplates and assesses the situation through intense observation. She hardly moves. If she anticipates that her personal space is about to be invaded, she spontaneously breaks down in tears. Her first impression won't win any adoring fans.
However, by releasing the pressure to seek approval and please an audience, the risk of future anxieties, personal insecurities and feelings of inadequacy may be lessened.
Through continual reflection, I am working on letting go of the expectations I put on my daughter during social encounters. Her suspicious, observant tendencies are a part of her, and worth getting to know, just as much as her smiley, playful side.
Instead of pressuring, prompting and acting like a nut to get her to perform, I now strive to support authentic and responsive interactions with family, friends and acquaintances, so that El is empowered to open-up on her own terms and choose who she invites into her world.
The Approval Trap
Raising Less Stressed Kids; Janet Lansbury
5 Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job;" Alfie Kohn