To Be Or Not To Be….Labeled Smart

The start of the school year is an exciting time for all families. Whether you have a child entering kindergarten, the grades or even preschool, we want our children to enjoy school and feel success.  Often we offer our children words of encouragement when they are entering into these new school experiences. We want them to feel competent and confident, and so we shower them with phrases that we hope will build them up:  You are so smart! You are great! Great job! or You are better at this than your friend / brother / me!

Often we use phrases and praise that we heard as a child, or that we think would be most helpful for us to hear. However, the most current research on the subject is telling us that our efforts at building self esteem and a positive attitude may be backfiring for our kids.

For instance, imagine that you are dressed up for a formal event, and an acquaintance sees you in the street. If he exclaims “You always look so dressed up and beautiful!” you might enjoy the compliment.  But we all have that inner voice that also says immediately—“He doesn’t know that I usually wear sweat pants and a t-shirt in the evening, now if he sees me just on a regular day he will be surprised.”

Imagine your acquaintance instead said something like “You look like you have put a lot of thought into what you wore today. Your outfit is beautiful.”  You might think your friend has a strange way of complimenting people, but you would also feel good about the compliment, and your inner voice would agree with his statement–you did put a lot of thought into what you wore, and it did result in a pretty nice outfit.

Our children are looking to see their reflection in our eyes. They want to hear what we think, and they feel best when we recognize them for the effort they are making, and actually see what they are doing. They feel unsure of themselves if our reaction to their work / project / grade is more of a label about who they are than an examination of what they have done.

If we tell our children they are smart, their inner voice is going to work a lot like ours does. Something inside them might start to say “I did a great job on writing my name today, but now I can’t show my work on writing numbers because the mistakes I made there don’t show me looking smart.” Your child will come to see that you are most impressed when he is showing you he is smart.

If we say “good job” after each activity / project / grade / worksheet then our child will start to think that maybe you aren’t even looking at what he is showing you. If good job is all that is said, how can he be sure that you have even taken the time to look at it? In addition, if he is used to hearing good job–even in an absent-minded manner–then what happens on those days when you don’t say good job because you are more distracted? Does this mean you don’t like it or it isn’t good?

So now that current research is turning our praising behavior on it’s ear—what can we use to show our children how much we absolutely love their projects / admire their work / enjoy their fantastic activities? When we as parents take the time to really look with our child at what he has done, he has a sense that the work is satisfying to both parent and child—and ultimately we want our children to feel like the work they are doing is satisfying to them. If this happens, they are much more likely to work hard at something when it gets hard—and lots of school experiences are hard!

Notice what your child has done and describe it. Then offer a word to them that can describe their hard work—or a word that describes how it was helpful to you. For example:

  • I see that you drew a tree. That is a colorful piece of work.
  • Thank you for putting your lunch box away. That helps keep our kitchen organized.
  • I see you worked hard on your math worksheet. That is called persistence.
  • You look proud of the sculpture you made in school. Tell me about it.
  • Simply describe what you see and follow up with: that is the result of hard work / determination / concentration / real effort / really enjoying what you are doing.

These statements and those like it will result in your child feeling good about himself because of the effort he has made on his project. They don’t label your child holistically based on one piece of work. They show support without judgement. This leaves an opening for your child to come to you when things do get difficult and he has to say “I know I worked hard on this, and I am really trying, but I don’t get it yet—can you help me?”

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