Many clients want to know how to increase self-esteem and success in their children. My solution to this request is to teach then a concept called “Holding a Space.” Holding a Space is based on my belief in the strength of the emotional current that exists between a parent and child –a force of the heart with impressive power. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the “Pygmalion Effect.” As you remember, Pygmalion was the Greek character that believed so strongly in the beauty of a statue he had carved that the statue came to life. In other words, by believing passionately in our child’s potential we can help them create it and make it a reality.
You may use this concept with any child you believe needs some added confidence. There are three advantages of the concept over traditional child rearing strategies. First, it takes little time and energy and can be accomplished in the down time you experience in waiting in a line, driving your car, or completing menial daily tasks. It takes only five minutes a day! Secondly, it can be utilized with loved ones separated from you by distance who you know are struggling. This strategy demands no direct communication between you and this loved one. Thirdly, you don’t have to worry about changing any behavior -only your thoughts.
I originated this concept out of necessity in my own life. My daughter, Jessica, had graduated from high school and been in and out of colleges for two years without much success. She had attended four colleges and changed majors six times. I realized she didn’t have any confidence or belief in her own ability to earn a college degree, although she professed to want one. I talked to her, advised her, and counseled her. I even suggested she see a therapist or coach. Nothing seemed to work. Her college savings I had so carefully put aside was quickly dwindling with little progress to show for it.
I begin to realize that not only did she not believe in herself. I didn’t believe in her either! I was fearful and frustrated with her. Would she be on my payroll forever? I was afraid for her future. I felt desperately sure that she must get that college education to have a happy and productive life. Could she ever be happy in a family of college graduates? I also worried deep down that it must be my fault that she wasn’t successful. Would she ruin my image by not graduating from college?
Much to my chagrin, my husband suggested we apply the principles I teach parents as a life coach to our own situation. What a novel idea! My first advice is always: Take responsibility to change yourself first. I realized it was time for me to change something. I had been focusing and concentrating on fixing Jessica- I failed to look at my own side of the street for cleaning. It was so easy to tell other people what to do with their children.
Now it was clear – I needed to make a shift within myself in how I was handling this problem. A shift is a fundamental change in your perception of something. My shift in this case was from seeing Jess as the one who needed to change something, to looking inside myself where change could occur. I could keep doing the same thing over and over again-talking and advising and counseling her on what she needed to do from my wise point of view or I could realize that this was not working and try something different.
Here are the three steps I designed that first changed me and ultimately changed Jessica.
STEP ONE: Create a Grand Vision. The goal of the first step is to create a Grand Vision in your mind for this child. A vision of a space where you always believe in them and their ability to thrive and achieve greatness to become what they were truly created to be. Demonstrating this constantly reminds your child of who they are, for they will see as in the mirror of your heart a positive self in the positive space you are holding for them. Think of it this way: You have been chosen for an amazing assignment to be the guard at the gate-to watch this child unfold into his or her true self.
Step one is easier than you might think. You have really already completed it many years ago. All you have to do is to remember the first thoughts you had when glimpsing sight of your newborn child for the first time. What a magnificent being! Surely this is a child like no other! Most of us begin to make positive predictions on the spot. What long fingers! Perhaps, a piano player. Look at those arms- what a great athlete we have here! We interpret even the first screams of the newborn in a positive way. What a strong personality that screaming predicts! Just let your mind remember the positive place you held naturally on the day this child was born.
I began to remember Jessica on the day her life began and she was placed in my arms in the delivery room. I remember being awed by the peaceful and blissful look on her face. What a happy child! At that moment, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that great things were in store for us. I knew we would be blessed with her life. I felt her strong grip and connected with her spirit and believed in her. I knew she would be successful. If someone had asked me if I thought she would be successful in college or any endeavor she tried, I would have stated: “BUT, OF COURSE!” A doctor, lawyer, scientist, president-anything was possible!
A positive beginning to such a sacred responsibility as raising a child is easy at the beginning and challenging later as they grow. We tend to forget that first grand vision. The more we can reconnect with that first instinctual perception of our child the easier the child’s ability to see and feel their own true nature. It is our job as a parent to hold a space for the child to display their most wonderful self.
I then began to remember Jessica as a child growing up and the many gifts and talents that had shown up over her l9 years. She was a gifted athlete, had an extraordinary sense of humor and had always attracted people to her-developing long-lasting relationships in her short life. Maybe these qualities were as important in life as high grades or a college degree. I decided to create a huge space for her by seeing more in her than she could see for herself right now.
Start this process by playing to your earliest positive memories and then formulate your Grand Vision of your child’s greatest strengths. Be creative and start a list of assets and ask other family members what they see this child’s best character traits to be. Involve the child’s other parent if possible. Don’t waste time trying to correct weaknesses. Be focused on positives. This is the foundation of your Grand Vision. Take your time. It may take you a week, a month, or more. Use intuition, fantasy, dreams and invention to describe just the right vision of your child’s potential. Think unlimited possibilities.
STEP TWO: Hold No Specific Expectations for Success. It may seem confusing to ask you to NOT hold specific expectations when I have just instructed you to design a Grand Vision. Herein lies the paradox and proves that parenting is the most challenging job of your life. This Grand Vision must be without specific concrete expectations. Pressure from parents to achieve their dreams can be over whelming to a child. Just ask any little leaguer! Carl Jung, a famous psychologist believed that one of the most destructive powers of parenthood is a parent’s unfulfilled life projected on a child with specific expectations. I had wanted Jessica to have a college degree. I had waited to get one myself until I was an older adult. I had wanted Jess to get one immediately after college. Both her parents had PhD’s. That must feel like pressure to a nineteen year old.
Expectations ruin a child’s chance to become his or her true self. The child will either feel pressured to please or react to the pressure by pulling in a negative direction. Tiger Woods, the professional golfer, must have had a father who was holding a positive space for him without specific expectations. I quote Tiger’s father:
“The Almighty entrusted this precocious child to me. He is orchestrating this entire scenario and has a plan to utilize Tiger to make an impact on the world. I don’t know what it is, but I sincerely believe it will be spiritual and humanitarian and will transcend the game of golf.”
So all our children are precious at birth and are destined to transcend our certain expectations. They have the potential to positively impact the world, especially if they have a parent who believes in them and is holding a space for them to grow into.
This may be the most difficult step. We can easily hold a space for our children when they are being successful. We are proud and knew they can do it. We as parents must also believe in our children at the time when we are most scared and worried for them. Worrying is like preparing for their failure-the opposite of holding a space. Our children need our belief and confidence at their most challenging times.
STEP THREE: Move Out of the Way. The third step is about a parent’s moving out of the way of the child’s experiencing his natural consequences in life. We as parents sometimes mistakenly feel we need to step in and protect. At times this is apparent like when they are about to run into the street but most times it is important to have an underlying faith that life brings to us exactly what we need. Even in this seemingly dangerous world out there, the loss of security can serve a greater purpose- to shift our child’s focus from reliance on the outer to trust in their inner self. So we must be careful not to steal from our children these opportunities to learn difficult lessons What your child resists will usually persist and come back in the form of another trial until they master the lesson and can move on. Life is about this process of learning.
Easier said than done with Jess and I. I so wanted to protect her from the consequences of her decisions. If she would just listen to me, life would be so much easier. One semester, she actually dropped out of school. I did not prevent her from receiving the consequences. I quit paying her apartment rent. She had to get a job and worked at Waffle House for several months. I wanted to rescue her so badly. She, however, tells me many years later it was the reason she finally went back to school and got that degree. (Currently, I am holding a space for her to find a job with a degree in Political Science!)
Remember adversity properly faced builds character. Most of us agree that the best lessons we ever learned were facing the most difficult times. Holding the highest image of positive thoughts for your child’s success in life is to create an opportunity, not an obligation. You don’t know the future nor can you really determine what is best for your child. Therefore step three is to detach from determining the outcome of their lives. Trust in our children to be their best. To be able to let your child live his life without expectations, without the need for specific results- that is giving them the freedom to achieve the right results.
Learn to talk in a new language to you child: “I trust you to work it out.” “I really believe in you and I know you can do it.” “You are figuring life out all by yourself.”
Completing all three steps will create the Pygmalion Effect in your child’s life. You will see positive changes in your child’s life. Create a Grand Vision, hold no expectations and then move out of the way. Watch the beauty within your child come to life as you “Hold a Space.”
When Jessica was four, I held her bicycle for her to get her balance. When she was five, I held her hand as she walked into kindergarten. When she was twelve, I held my breath as she tried out for the basketball team. Today, every day of her life, I hold a space for her to walk into career success, perfect health, loving relationships, and happiness within her own heart.
Postscript: Twenty years later, I am so proud to say that Holding a Space works: Jessica has it all. She has the kind of career success we all crave: She is making a difference in people’s lives every day working as a Vice Principal for ninth graders in Allen Texas. She is happy, healthy and loving.