Seeing is believing. I've never agreed with that proverb. If you can see something, you don't need to take it on faith. I'd like to offer an alternative proverb: We see what we believe. One of our sons recently emailed us the story of an ingenious experiment in perception reported in a Washington newspaper. The newspaper asked a world-class musician, Joshua Bell, if he were game for an experiment. Bell is the classical music equivalent of a rock star, dazzling audiences with his virtuosity on the violin, his athletic technique of playing and casual, yet stylish wardrobe. He performs to sellout crowds in concert halls where a $100 seat is a bargain.
The Washington newspaper had something else in mind. They wanted to know what would happen if, without promotion or advertising, Bell took his genius anonymously to an ordinary, everyday place and played his heart out. Would anyone notice? He agreed to the experiment.
Dressed in jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap, he planted himself in the middle of the morning rush hour in Washington, D.C. Positioning himself against a bare wall at the top of the escalators in an indoor arcade, he played six classical pieces on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. In less than an hour, more than 1,000 people passed by. 27 people tossed loose change into his open violin case for a grand total of $32.17. Seven people stopped what they were doing to take in the performance for at least one minute. Only one person recognized Bell, stayed until the end, introduced herself and tossed in a $20 bill to inflate the total to $52.17. This raised a question: Is it art if no one notices? Would it be the final game of the World Series if the two teams played in secret in the middle of the night in a quiet ballpark on the outskirts of town?
If a child tries to live her life and be herself, but no one notices, is she still a child? Of course. But can a child develop a sense of personal well-being if the people who mean the most to her don't affirm her? Will she feel deep down in her bones that she is worthwhile? What happens to a child's development when parents are too busy, too depressed or too self-absorbed to acknowledge and praise a child's efforts?
Personal well-being is developed through a mirror. Parents' words and actions towards a child are like a mirror into which the child looks to find out who she is. A child learns to see in herself what her parents believe about her. In a sense, a child can say: "I am what my parents think I am." Yet parents often think of their children as projections of how these parents feel about themselves. Parents think they are looking through a window at their children; but often they are looking into their own mirror without realizing it. In effect we see things not as they are but as we are.
That morning in Washington, D.C., people saw what they believed: a poor, struggling street musician distracting them with noise on their way to work. They judged him on externals: the common setting, the clothes, the open violin case with scattered coins. Perhaps they hurried past because they saw in him something they feared they could become: poor! Joshua Bell, the master violinist, responded to the experiment with characteristic good humor. However, he acknowledged that even with all his recognition and fame, he felt strange that "people were actually ignoring me. I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible."
A child who is invisible to his parents feels empty inside. Emptiness leads to desperation : the feeling that I will do anything just to get noticed. It also leads to despair : the feeling that I can't do anything worthwhile. So look beyond the gangly body, the acne, the hair and social clumsiness to see the genius in your child struggling to get out. Take some practical steps. Take down the dreary pictures hanging on the walls at home. Affirm their efforts. Buy some inexpensive frames and brighten up the home with your children's artwork. Don't relegate everything they do to a magnet on the refrigerator door; put it in the living room where family and friends can see them. Borrow a camcorder and record your kids' and grandkids' concerts and athletic performances. Turn off the tiring TV sitcoms and feature your children's efforts instead. Sure they'll groan. But more importantly, they'll notice that you notice. And they'll come to believe what you see in them!