The Subliminal Messages of Parenting

Amy Weisberg, M.E.

As the school year comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on the impact we, adults have on the children in our lives.

“Children Learn What They Live,” the classic poem by Dorothy Law Nolte, examines how children learn from the subliminal and sometimes overt messages of their parents and other close adults through words and actions. As I reread this poem and the book, “Children Learn What They Live, Parenting to Inspire Values,” by Dorothy Law Nolte with Rachel Harris, I was reminded of what a difficult job parenting really is.

We are not perfect and there is no real instruction manual for parenting, though there are many books on the subject. When we are in the moment with our children, we often say and do things we wish we hadn’t or act on impulse. It is never too late to reflect on our own reactions to common childhood occurrences and develop the habits that will encourage healthy development.


                      “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.”


Children learn as they grow and learn from their mistakes. Forgetting a lunchbox in the morning and having to get a lunch from the cafeteria, forgetting their homework assignment and losing points on an assignment, are learning experiences. Overall, they may not have a lasting impact unless a parent focuses on the mistake and magnifies it, creating a more permanent type of damage. Children remember the way they feel when their mistake becomes cause for intense scrutiny and criticism. Children can face criticism from parents but what they also learn from harsh judgment, is that they are not worth as much as they thought they were.

As parents, our job is to realistically build up our children to enable them to fulfill their own potential. We should be their safe place, their cheerleaders and mentors. This does not mean that we inhibit the ability of our children to grown and learn, but it does mean that the way we say things, and the hidden meaning behind our words cause our reactions to be interpreted by others, including our children.  

As the mirrors of their parents, children learn to condemn and criticize others. Children emulate their parents and often replicate their language and behavior without even realizing it. If they observe parents criticizing or speaking disrespectfully about other children or adults, a child’s view of that person is tarnished, too. In this way, children can develop habits and attitudes based on the way their parents “teach” them.



                    “If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.”

We can give our children encouragement, whose root word is “courage, and we can form the base of support our children need to flourish. We can provide positive feedback for our children not only when they succeed, but when they show an effort or even when they fail. We can be there to cheer our children on, to support their independence by encouraging them to take risks and learn from their own experiences. We can give them enough time to complete tasks without constantly being in a hurry, and to have the materials they need to complete assignments.  

Parents can encourage children when they support their interests and dreams, as well as when they demonstrate a positive approach to challenges in their own lives. If parents approach situations with a calm respect and demonstrate desired traits such as kindness, compassion, and understanding, their children will notice and internalize these behaviors. When children encounter a situation that requires a deeper understanding they will approach it with confidence, having seen their parents and role models exhibit a positive model.

As parents and teachers, we are tasked with the job of helping children develop their own strong moral compass and strategies to deal with life’s experiences.

Throughout the different stages of childhood, we observe our role changing based on the circumstances and the needs of our children. We can be there when support is needed and step away to give our children the space to spread their own wings and try the experience of flying on their own.

We must be willing to look in the mirror ourselves, with an objective eye, to see the image we are presenting to our children. This is, perhaps the most difficult part of parenting, but one that allows us to grow into our role as parents. We, too, can learn from our mistakes, look at our reflection and attempt to objectively determine if we are the parent we really want to be, and the kind of person we hope our children want to emulate.


Amy Weisberg

Amy Weisberg—A mother with three grown daughters and a teacher with 38 years’ experience who consults with teachers and parents as well as provides support for students. Her website is, email

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