Why Don't We See Our Kids as They Really Are?

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Originally posted on April 25, 2014.

We’ve all experienced it. You’re some place where screaming isn’t tolerated, some kids starts wailing, and the parents rush to quiet them down. What happens next is the twist: “They’re the best behaved kids we know,” the parents say, as their child continues to bellow. We nod our heads, feign a smile, and go back to what we’re doing.

Before you pounce on me for being impatient and inexperienced, I’m here to share some good news. The more positively we view our close relationship partners, the stronger relationship we have. The best part is that the positivity doesn’t have to exist. If you ask many people, they’ll tell you their close friends are above average on nearly every positive trait. They’re funnier, smarter, and kinder than their peers. We might have positive illusions, but that doesn’t hurt anything.

Or does it? Let’s return to how we see our kids. Seeing them as above average might have certain benefits. It might boost your parenting commitment and satisfaction. Who wants to devote the time and energy it takes to parent if you see your kid as a dud?

A recent study suggests a potential drawback: many parents perceive their children as healthier than they actually are. The study, which drew on several investigations involving over 15,000 children, found that half of parents who have overweight or obese children rate their child as slimmer than their weight suggests.

Just as people villainize parents of screaming children, it’s easy to attack parents who don’t know their children are overweight or obese. But let’s show parents some empathy. Parenting is hard. I don’t have kids, but I can’t tell you how much respect I have for people who do. Parents might not want to hurt their children’s feelings by calling them overweight or obese. They also might not know what it means to be overweight or obese. Is it simply if your son fits into his clothes? If your daughter comes home crying because a school bully called her fat?

But there’s a third possibility: when we love someone, we see them in the best possible light. Instead of seeing an obese child, we see our daughter who jumps down the stairs to welcome us home from work. We see our son who loves to get dirty in the mud.

When I read about the study, I tucked it away in my files. The next morning my wife and I took our two golden retrievers, Finnegan and Atticus, to the veterinarian. They’re both of our dogs, but Finnegan is mine and Atticus is my wife’s. They weighed Finnegan, who came in at a beefy 85 pounds. Then it was Atticus’s turn.

“He’s much skinnier than Finnegan,” my wife, Alice, said. “Just look at him.”

I looked and realized we weren’t seeing the same dog. “He looks the same to me. We feed him the same amount and give him the same amount of exercise.”

“Nah, I bet he’s 70 pounds,” she said.

They took Atticus away, weighed him, and returned with the results. He was exactly the same as Finnegan: 85 pounds.

So, this finding might apply to dog owners, too.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”