yes, therapy helps!
The Pygmalion Effect: how children end up being the longings and fears of their parents

The Pygmalion Effect: how children end up being the longings and fears of their parents

January 19, 2023

The Pygmalion Effect is the phenomenon by which the expectations and beliefs of adults towards their children tend to be confirmed with the passage of time.

The Pygmalion Effect in children

It receives that name in reference to Pygmalion, an ancient king of Cyprus, who fell in love with a female statue that he had created and implored Aphrodite to give life to the statue. Finally Aphrodite agreed to Pygmalion's pretensions, materializing his desire . Pigmalión contracted marriage with Galatea, that thus was called the woman born of that original statue, and had a called daughter Pafo.

Metaphorically, the Pygmalion Effect describes how parents, teachers and people with emotional ties can transfer or influence the child's lifestyle , mutating their abilities, tastes and behaviors. This kind of expectations that are deposited in the child are transmitted through verbal and non-verbal language, and express both what we want and what we reject.


Language can transmit insecurity to the child

A good amount of the messages we transmit are surreptitious, 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 transmitted, and the child is able to capture that feeling of background beyond the strictly verbal message. Without going too far, many messages that are sent to children can be of the type: "Behave like a man", "Be smarter", "You can not do this".

However, what is transmitted is the longing or fear expressed in the imperative form of language; the child apprehends what his role or behavior should be (and most important: how it should not be). Thus, the true message that the child captures reads: "You are not man enough, prove it", "You are stupid", "You are going to fail". Therefore, it is decisive to try to describe more precisely what we feel, and try to ensure our own feelings before expressing them.


In summary, families usually deposit a series of unconscious beliefs (good or bad, constructive or limiting) regarding the future of each of its offspring. The tangible product of this aggregate of beliefs and desires is what is known as the Pygmalion Effect.

Investigations on the Pygmalion Effect

One of the studies on which the theory of the Pygmalion effect is held was made in the United States. We worked with two groups of students, one of which consisted of students of superior intelligence and good academic qualifications, while the other was composed of students with grades below the average . The teacher during the experimentation did not know the true origin of the students nor the criterion with which the students had been separated into two groups.

Instead, The teacher was given inverted information about the intellectual and academic development of the students .


The teachers were informed that the first group (which was made up of the applied students) was made up of the worst students in the state. Regarding the second group (the one made up of mediocre students), the teachers were told that they were made up of students with a higher intellectual level, and that they obtained excellent grades.

After a while teaching, It was reported that the group of intellectually brilliant boys suffered a noticeable fall in the ratings , while those who had a poor academic level, significantly increased the quality of their grades. Therefore, the conclusion is clear: the teacher's belief influenced their interaction and the achievement of the academic goals by the students. Thus, the belief about the ability of the students led to a kind of "self-fulfilling prophecy".

Sometimes adults are aware of these expectations and desires deposited in children, for example may be aware that they have had a child to not feel alone during old age, to be able to solidify the marriage bonds, to give meaning to life, for replace someone who died, to inherit a business, etc. Whether or not they are more aware of these reasons, the truth is that they develop a whole set of strategies aimed at maximizing the chances that those wishes will be fulfilled, from the name given to the baby, to the most unusual fantasies about their capacities, his physique or his future vocation.

The belief as a protective element

The beliefs are so powerful that they can end up investing a person's future, which for example has a tendency toward a complicated and surly character, only by the influence of the reiteration of unconscious messages that they have been hearing and internalizing during their childhood, and that marks the way on how your story should end or, in this case, a particular personality trait. In this way they have been able to forge personalities and biographies that, far from the essentialist mechanism, They have been consolidating their way of being and their goals with the help of some beliefs expressed about them .

In this sense, it is important to point out that this influence of the family environment is able to protect the infant in vulnerable social contexts, since from this vision, confidence manages to protect the child in a network of optimism about their abilities and their future, acting as a vaccine of the virus of misery.

These good intentions born of love certainly possess the ability to build realities, as reflected in the unforgettable film "Life is Beautiful", of Roberto Benigni . In the film we learned how is it possible to found an alternative reality , when the father modulated the vision of the events in his son, transforming the terrible experience of living the war and the concentration camps of the III Reich in an event full of challenges, challenges and games, with characters that played the role of villains, contributing decisively to save the carnal life, but above all his desire to live and to face barbarism with integrity.

How to avoid the harmful effects associated with the Pygmalion Effect

  • Be treated through some process of self-exploration (psychotherapy or development techniques) that allows access to deep, perhaps unconscious, expectations about your child (ren), as well as your perception of reality and the future.
  • Release thoughts focused on expectations, using an effective method or discipline.
  • Restate some ways you look at your children and change the way you express yourself with each of them, the physical proximity, recognize genuine qualities and skills , eliminating fanciful images about what we would like them to be or what they would do. In short, try to respect that the child chooses with the greatest possible freedom their dreams and aspirations.
  • Accompany the child in his natural evolutionary process through expressive systems, such as art or music, that can make visible reformulations, perceptual modifications, thus developing the habit of self-observation.
  • The methods based on family therapy can be effective when analyzing, predicting and intervening in the role set by the family before the birth of a child, limiting constraints and therefore indicate the path where the offspring will develop. Thanks to this methodology, we can assume the changes and modify the destiny of the child.
  • As parents, we must learn strategies for our child to grow up with healthy self-esteem.

THE METAMORPHOSIS by Franz Kafka - FULL AudioBook | Greatest Audio Books (January 2023).


Similar Articles