The words we use around children shape their views of themselves now and in the future. Even if you’re not sure your child understands your exact words, don’t be fooled. Children who are preverbal or who speak very little understand way more than you might think.
We need to support our children to become more independent, confident and willing to try new things. They hear us say, “John doesn’t eat meat.” and that pretty well seals it – John’s less likely to try meat.
Talk about children in terms of what they can do. If they have setbacks or run into difficulty, there are still options available. If you tell your child they’re a good athlete and they lose a race, how does their self-evaluation change? If you tell your child they’re a really good reader but they misread something, how do they evaluate themselves now? If we put children into categories, like being a good reader, helper, athlete, artist, etc., once they run into difficulties, there goes their image of themselves. But, if you tell them they’re good at reading, helping, running, drawing, etc. they have room for setbacks and for successes without damaging their own image.
Subtle but surprisingly powerful. A recent study looked at these subtleties. Children were told either they were good helpers or good at helping. That didn’t affect anything until the children ran into setbacks (spilling milk, dropping crayons/colors). The ‘helper’ children gave up – they seemed to think, “Ya, what a great helper I am!” They were also less willing to help other people. The children were left “feeling like they were ‘bad’ members of the helper category” (p. 12). It’s better to focus children on their intentions (to help, read, draw, etc.), especially when things don’t pan out well. This’ll help them understand that difficulties and mistakes are chances for learning and not the end of the world.
The effect of labels doesn’t go away. Children who were praised for trying or working hard as preschoolers were more likely to treat mistakes as chances for learning five years later. But, children who were praised for being a ‘good girl’, ‘big boy’, or ‘being smart’, were more likely to be frustrated by difficulties and give up.
Here are my rules for talking to children:
- Always speak in front of your child as if they understand everything. They’ll understand your tone of voice and whether it’s positive or negative even if they don’t understand every word. Talk about what they do well and how hard they work.
- NEVER talk about your child’s problems and difficulties in front of them. For years, I’ve heard people say, “Well, she didn’t breathe when she was first born so …” and “He has autism so …” That’s just damaging! Of course, we want children to be realistic about their talents and areas of need more help but don’t put limits on them. All children can learn and want to learn. You can talk about challenges but make sure you highlight their strengths.
- Talk about children in terms of what they do, not who they are. Use action words to describe them – “You are doing such a good job helping/cooking/reading/jumping.” Find positives to encourage your child so they’re motivated to keep trying.