What My Three-Year-Old Taught Me About Self-Criticism

If it takes months of coaxing to help my three-year-old son unhook from the effects of one negative comment, writes Ed Halliwell, is it surprising that we can't change our habitual ways of being hard on ourselves with a bit of positive self-talk?

For the last year or so, I’ve been taking my eldest son—just turned three—to soccer classes. It’s a light and playful introduction to kicking a ball, and as someone who still enjoys 5-a-side games once or twice a week, it’s a pleasure to discover if this might be a sport for him too.

He enjoys the sessions, so I’ve felt comfortable that I’m not just forcing him to follow in my footsteps, recognizing the possibility that he may decide in time that it’s not something he wants to continue. But I hadn’t expected what happened three month ago: just when the weekly lesson began, he suddenly stopped and said: “I’m not very good at soccer, Daddy.”

Where had that come from? I’ve always given him positive feedback as he played, so this sudden self-criticism, accompanied by an unwillingness to put the ball at his feet, left me stumped. Then I remembered back to a few weeks before, when during a development review at his nursery, one of the teachers said—without any sense of negative judgement—that my son was not as strong at ball-kicking as some of his contemporaries. Had he somehow picked up this message? From one of the other children? From the teacher? From me, even if not in words?

It wasn’t a one-off. Over the next several weeks, while he continued to look forward to his ‘Little Kickers’ classes, when it came to getting the balls out, he would tend to move from willingness to sheepishness and occasionally refusal, repeating by way of explanation: “I’m not very good at soccer.”

I wasn’t sure how to handle this. I didn’t want to ignore his feelings, and just keep on encouraging him as if nothing had been said, but at the same time, giving up playing with the ball might leave him with a negative view of his skills confirmed.

Uncomfortable with feeling either like a pushy parent or colluding with the story, I tried gently to respond with something like: “You’re excellent at soccer, I’ve watched you and played with you and you’re doing really well. But it’s okay if you don’t want to kick the ball right now, we can just throw it to each other if you like.”

Sometimes he’d be happy with throwing, sometimes he asked to watch me kick the ball, and occasionally he’d gingerly go back to kicking it himself. I kept reminding him how well he was doing. At the same time, I was noticing and watching my own mental stories—Am I making things worse? Maybe he really doesn’t like soccer and I’m projecting my desires onto him?

For a couple of months, the pattern continued, sometimes more often during one session than another. He never seemed upset about attending the classes as a whole, so I continued to engage with him as best I could, taking every opportunity to remind him how capable he is and how proud I am of him, no matter what happened when (or whether) he kicked any balls.

Gradually, his expressions of inadequacy diminished, and a contentment with the ball at his feet visibly grew. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as he ran towards the goal, he turned to me with a broad smile and said triumphantly: “I’m really good at soccer, Daddy!” and kicked a ball without fear into the net. As I saw his joy, I felt a warmth spread out from my chest.

Of course, I don’t really know what happened here – what caused this drop and then return of confidence in my little boy. But it reminds me of what most of us are working with in our mindfulness practice—the voices in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough, and that sap our vitality, increase our anxiety, and lead us to avoid new territories.

Perhaps these voices are not really ours, but based on the opinions of others, and installed in our minds when we were too young to evaluate what’s true? They are likely reinforced by the adaptive (but unhappiness-fuelling) bias in our psyches that makes us super-sensitive to, and disproportionately believing of, critical opinions from others.

If it takes three months of coaxing to help a three-year-old unhook from the effect of what may have been one negative comment or thought, is it surprising that we can’t change our habitual ways of being hard on ourselves with a bit of positive self-talk? Nevertheless, by repeatedly bringing awareness to the voices in our head, approaching them in meditation with gentleness and acceptance (rather than just an aggressive desire to get rid), we are patiently training ourselves to be freed from their grasp.

In time, with a lot of repetition, we may come to view self-critical thoughts, and the uncomfortable body sensations that tend to come with them, as just the remnants of old and unhelpful messages that we don’t need to buy into anymore. They are thoughts, not facts, as the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) mantra has it. Offering ourselves the kindness and acceptance that comes with meditation practice, we are already undoing (maybe even replacing) the wirings that got tangled when we weren’t always treated well earlier in life.