The Power of an Idea

Ideas are powerful. Saints, intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, litterateurs – in short, achievers from all walks of life extol the virtue and power of an idea.

Who am I to disagree with them? I, too, believe in the power of an idea. But I want to show you the other side of the coin today. The power of an idea not to build, develop, encourage, support, construct – but to destroy.

A 4-year old classmate told my daughter, “I’m bad, and I’m stupid.”

Three years later, my daughter asks me, “Why does he say this about himself? Every time we ask him to come up with ideas for group work, he says he’s too stupid – his ideas will be no good. And you know, Ma, he comes up with great ideas all the time. He had a wonderful idea the other day. We built the entire project around it, and we did so well! But still, he says he’s stupid. I keep telling him he’s not, but he won’t listen!” (She meant he wouldn’t believe her.)

I told her maybe he was having a bad day.

“He’s been this way for years now, ever since we began to go to school,” she said. “But how can he say that about himself? It isn’t even true!”

The boy was an enfant terrible, and I wondered if ever he would think well of himself. Happily, he was given a position of great responsibility at school, and that was the beginning of his transformation. Today he is hardly recognizable as the wild child he used to be. Today, he believes in his intrinsic worth. 🙂

But what a colossal waste – of time, of possibilities! How much pain he has endured! How much more fun he would have had, how much more he could have explored his potential, if only he hadn’t started with the idea that he was bad and stupid.

I was at my daughter’s school to pick her up. I was surrounded by a bunch of her 5-year old classmates. One girl with a wistful expression came up to me, and I said, “Hello, beautiful!” It’s not like I didn’t know her name, but I sometimes address children this way.

She looked up into my face and said simply, “I am not beautiful.”

My heart missed a beat.

With most other children, such a statement would mean they were angling for more compliments – a sort of teasing, laughing game.

But the way she said it, I couldn’t say another word to contradict her. I genuinely felt she was beautiful. And she genuinely felt she wasn’t. There was nothing more to be said – at least, not at that moment. I held her to me in a hug, which she fervently returned, and told her, “You’re a wonderful, special girl, and I think you’re lovely.”

Over the next seven years that I have known this child, I have tried to tell her at odd moments, overtly and covertly, that she is beautiful. One fine day, recently, she said to me, “You may think so, but I know I’m not.” It took seven whole years for her to believe that one person thought her beautiful! And this: a child who would leave her ‘friends’ and be with me every time she saw me!

In those seven years, I have seen her systematically destroy relationships with children. I have seen her strike out blindly at anyone who was happy or contented. I have seen her being underhanded, cruel and unbelievably vindictive when she did not get her way.

Even as I counseled other children with how to deal with the trouble she was creating for them, I could not bring myself to denounce her. Instead, I tried to explain to the others that she was coming from a place of pain (where she was supposed to conform to some specific idea of beauty – but did not, though I didn’t share this with the other children). And this lack of acceptance colored her entire life.

Imagine explaining this to 6-, 7- and 8- year olds! Understandably, they weren’t interested. “She has no right to behave this way! Why can’t someone talk to her parents? Why are they not told what she’s doing – how she is (mis)behaving?”

Her parents… Trust a child to hit the nail on the head!

I ask you – where do you think she got the idea she wasn’t beautiful? Right first time – at home, from her parents.

An idea is a scary thing.

Don’t worry about watching your words around your children. Don’t try to hide from them what you really think. Doing so is a waste of time and energy. Instead, revisit your ideas about them.

Because no matter how careful you are, your ideas will color your attitude, your body language, your mannerisms, your words, your expectation, your tone… – your ideas will create (or destroy) your relationship with your child.

And since the human mind focuses more on what ‘is not’, the idea you focus on will invariably be a negative, destructive one.

So you think she’s lazy. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe she is lazy (according to you! :-)). Well, is that all there is to your daughter? Is that the only thing you can say to yourself about her? That she is lazy? There must be something else to her. Some quality of mind or heart that you believe is desirable?

Why let the negative (lazy) idea take over your mind? And hers too!

In any case, who are you to decide what lazy is? A snail might look lazy (slow) to you, but it is probably going as fast as it can! Who are you to judge?

Maybe she’s an early riser. Why not pick that up as an idea? Maybe she’s caring, well-mannered, an achiever, a sportsperson, an artist, neat and orderly. There has to be something.

Don’t do this when you’re tired or irritated. Do it when you’re overjoyed with her. What about her has you elated? What do you celebrate about her?

I have met some parents who, over more than a decade, have been unable to find a single positive thing about their child. To them I say, if you were to write your child’s obituary, what would you write? Identify a positive idea.

And stick with it.

An idea is a powerful thing – wield the power cautiously, wisely.

14 Responses to The Power of an Idea

  1. Preeti Hans September 9, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    Ms. Zutshi, did you meet the girl’s parents??

    • Vinita Zutshi September 9, 2011 at 7:06 am #

      Preeti, please feel free to call me Vinita. 🙂 No, I didn’t meet her parents. It wasn’t my place to do so – I was just another parent.

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