From My Notebooks: The Power of Self-Image

At Mid-Southeast Suzuki Institute a few years ago, I had the privilege of listening to and observing Bill Starr. The other day I rediscovered my carefully written notes in a folder of stuff I was getting ready to scan for storage.  One of the gems I read was:

“A child will never exceed his self-image.”

I think about one child in particular when I see this.  Although he wasn’t a student of mine, I am a close observer and his situation still keeps me awake at night, even after all this time.  He doesn’t realize he has a poor self-image because he’s never experienced a positive self-image.  He’s never known the feeling of power, accomplishment and growth that comes from doing it yourself, whatever “it” might have been.  He gives up after the first mistake and doesn’t try again.  If “it” gets done, it’s because someone else does “it” for him.  Or makes excuses as to why “it” was impossible for him to do.  The message he hears from The People Who Make Excuses is that it’s OK for him to give up, that they don’t have expectations for him anymore.  He doesn’t have to worry about disappointing anyone in this no-pressure environment because they don’t expect anything from him in the first place.  What is perhaps sadder is that he equates love with expectations: if you have expectations for him, you don’t love him or care about him.  As long as everyone leaves him alone and lets him do as he pleases, then everyone loves him.  He is uncomfortable around me, because I challenge him to do better, to be better.  Needless to say, we do not get along.

You see, I have expectations for everyone.  And I see potential where many observers would say that none exists. I guess it’s part of my nature, as a human and as a teacher. Experience has taught me that expectations are reasonable. And people expect you to meet them.  Students who experience success will almost always reach beyond what they think they are capable of achieving.  My parents expected a lot from me.  I hope that I’ve met their expectations, for the most part.  Who knows? Maybe it’s just a generational thing. But in the case of my unmotivated friend, it’s really hard for me to deal with because I have to accept things that I cannot change, even though those things hurt other people I love.

Now, I don’t know — the young man above is in college now.  And maybe this is routine, commonplace, standard behavior in today’s college students.  I’ve heard and read lots of stories of kids feeling like they’re entitled to what their parents sometimes sacrifice to provide them.  I’ve also found stories of students who believe in the value of hard work and paying their own way, even if it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to get ahead.  I’ve read about many people who do what they have to do to survive, even in the face of what seems like impossible odds;  indeed, I have my own personal stories of hardship and challenge.  I came through OK.  A lot of folks aren’t so lucky. Who would you say has the better self-image:  the people who did it themselves, or the ones to whom it was handed? How do you think the folks who are still struggling feel?

But, in case you missed it or forgot, “impossible” is not a word in the Suzuki dictionary.  And it should be banished from routine usage.  Nothing is impossible.  Challenging? Yes. Very hard? Probably.  Next-to-impossible? Sure.  But impossible?  Nope.  Not until you’ve exhausted life itself.  Poor self-image is caused by “stinkin’ thinkin'” (as FlyLady calls it), believing that you are not capable, not smart enough, not strong enough, not “talented” enough.  It is believing that there is some predetermined amount of brains, brawn or talent you need before you can do “it.”  At some point though, isn’t enough, enough?

Self-image is not based on what other people think.  Yeah, yeah, I know that some psychologists say differently, and I’d agree that I’ve simplified it, maybe too much.  But you know what?  If self-image was based entirely on what other people thought, wouldn’t it be called something else?  Like Other-image?  Or Outside-image?  SELF-image is how you see yourSELF, although it may be based partly on how you think others perceive you.  And I’m not saying it’s free of outside influences, because we all know that isn’t the reality.  If it was, you would think that The Scientific Studies Of Prestigious Universities would show drastic drops in dieting, suicide and bullying.  Self-image should be based on what you think is important and healthy for you, and it can have a powerful influence over how other people view you.  Being egotistical (thinking that you are better than anyone else) is just as harmful to self-image as being an emotional gutter-dweller.  Raising kids that have a good self-image is critical to their success and happiness as they grow into adulthood, whether in school, music, sports, casual and intimate relationships, or employment.  Self-image touches every aspect of a person’s life.

As Suzuki violin teachers, we harbor a vision of every single student we teach someday playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.  Or the Brahms.  Or Beethoven’s.  We know that every student has the same ability. We sign on for the long-term, to walk with him, leading him when necessary, from where he is now to where he will be in a few years.  A healthy musical self-image comes from a nurturing environment that allows mistakes to be powerful, creative teaching tools that lead to success and self-discovery, not to ways to make you feel stupid and worthless.  Man is the son of his environment, regardless of whether it is a good one or bad one, abusive or positive, selfish or giving, rich or poor, willing to learn and help or dismiss and tear down.  We have an obligation to believe that all things are possible, to help students to see their potential as clearly as we do, and to encourage them to exceed expectations.  What an incredible and awesome responsibility for parents and teachers to have!

Teachers: what do you do to help students develop a positive self-image? How do you incorporate parent education into it?

Parents? How does your teacher support you as both a parent and as a home teacher?


One Response to From My Notebooks: The Power of Self-Image

  1. Lyn says:

    When my students seems irritated with me because I require them to re-do something, or to practice something that they deem to be “too many” times, I remind them of this: If I didn’t care about them, I would let them do whatever they want to do. It is because I care about them that I require more of them than they sometimes think they should have to produce. In our tiny school, this extends naturally to expectations about how to act, how to be, how to treat people, and how to be persistent until it’s right. The only question I don’t allow in my school is, “Is this good enough?” My response is, unwaveringly, “I don’t know if it’s good enough until I know whether it’s the best job you could do.” When my students graduate, I hope more than anything else, that one of the most important lessons they learned at our school is one about diligence and persistence and drive and ambition. I hope also that as they walk out the door for the last time, diploma in hand, that they walk out with firm ideas about how to be a loyal, honest, trustworthy person, and that they never compromise those qualities.

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