The Pygmalion Effect: How Children End Up Being Their Parents’ Wants And Fears

the Pygmalion effect is the phenomenon by which adults’ expectations and beliefs about their children tend to be confirmed overtime.

The Pygmalion effect in children

It is named after Pygmalion, a former king of Cyprus, who fell in love with a female statue he himself had created and implored Aphrodite to bring the statue to life. Finally Aphrodite acceded to Pygmalion’s claims, materializing their desire. Pygmalion married Galatea, the supposed woman born from this original statue, and had a daughter named Paphos.

Metaphorically, the Pygmalion effect describes how parents, teachers and those with emotional connections can transfer or influence a child’s lifestyle, Mutating their abilities, their tastes and their behaviors. These kinds of expectations that are placed on the child are conveyed to him through verbal and non-verbal language, and expresses both what we want and what we reject.

Language can transmit insecurity to the child

Many of the messages we send are clandestine, and they operate both in the gestural field and in the connotation of what we express. Therefore, they differ from the verbal message that is conveyed, and the child is able to capture this underlying feeling beyond the strictly verbal message. Without going any further, many messages sent to children can be like: “Behave like a man”, “Be smarter”, “You can’t do that”.

However, what is transmitted is the desire or fear expressed in the imperative form of language; the child learns what his role or behavior should be (And most important: how it shouldn’t be). So, the real message that the child picks up says: “You are not man enough, prove it”, “You are stupid”, “You will fail”. Therefore, it is essential to try to describe more precisely what we are feeling and to be sure of our own feelings before expressing them.

In short, families usually deposit a series of unconscious beliefs (Good or bad, constructive or limiting) about the future of each of their children. The tangible product of this aggregate of beliefs and desires is what is known as the Pygmalion effect.

Research on the Pygmalion effect

One of the studies on which the theory of the Pygmalion effect is based was conducted in the United States. We worked with two groups of students, one of which was made up of smarter students with good academic qualifications, while the other was made up of students with below average grades. The teacher during the experiment did not know the true origin of the students or the criteria by which the students had been separated into two groups.

however, the teacher received reverse information about the intellectual and academic development of the students.

Teachers were told that the first group (which consisted of applied students) consisted of the worst students in the state. As for the second group (the one made up of mediocre pupils), teachers were told that it was made up of pupils of a higher intellectual level and that they obtained excellent marks.

After a while of teaching, it was reported that the group of intellectually bright boys suffered an apparent drop in grades, While those who had a mediocre academic level, significantly improved the quality of their grades. Therefore, the conclusion is clear: the belief that the teacher influenced their interaction and student achievements in academic goals. Thus, the belief in the ability of students has led to a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Sometimes adults are aware of these expectations and aspirations placed in children, for example they may be aware of having had a child so as not to feel lonely in old age, to be able to consolidate marital bonds, to give a sense of life., to replace a deceased person, to inherit a business, etc. Whether they are more aware of these reasons or not, the truth is that they develop a whole set of strategies aimed at maximizing the chances of fulfilling these desires, from the name given to the baby, to the most unusual fantasies about their abilities. , their physique or their future vocation.

Belief as a protective element

Beliefs are so powerful that they can reverse the future of a person, who for example has a tendency towards a complicated and harsh character, only through the influence of repeating unconscious messages that he has heard and internalized during her childhood, and which marks the way for how her story should end or, in this case, a particular personality trait. In this way, it was possible to forge personalities and biographies which, far from the essentialist mechanism, they consolidated their way of being and their goals in the hands of beliefs poured out on them.

In this sense, it is important to note that this influence of the family environment is able to protect the child in vulnerable social contexts, since from this point of view, trust manages to protect the child in a network of optimism about its capabilities and its future, acting as a viral vaccine of misfortune.

These good intentions born of love certainly have the capacity to build realities, as evidenced by the unforgettable film “Life is Beautiful” by Roberto Benigni. In the movie we learned how it is possible to found an alternative reality, When the father modulated the vision of events in his son, transforming the terrible experience of living the war and the concentration camps of the III Reich into an event full of challenges, challenges and games, with characters playing the role of the wicked, to contribute decisively to saving carnal life, but above all their desire to live and to be able to face barbarism with integrity.

How to avoid the harmful effects associated with the Pygmalion effect

  • Treat yourself to a process of self-exploration (Psychotherapy or developmental techniques) which allows access to deep expectations, perhaps unconscious, on your child (ren), as well as on your perception of reality and the future.

  • Release expectation-driven thoughts, using an effective method or discipline.

  • Rewrite some of the ways you look at your children and change the way you express yourself with each of them, physical closeness, recognize authentic qualities and abilities, Eliminate fanciful images about what we would like them to be or do. In short, try to respect the fact that the child chooses as freely as possible his dreams and aspirations.

  • Support the child in his natural evolutionary process through expressive systems, such as art or music, which can make visible reformulations, perceptual modifications, thus developing the habit of self-observation.

  • Methods based on family therapy they can be effective in analyzing, predicting and intervening in the role played by the family in the face of the birth of a child, the borderline conditions and therefore indicate the path where regrowth will develop. Through this methodology, we can take charge of the changes and alter the fate of the child.

  • As parents, we need to learn strategies for our child to grow up with good self-esteem.

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