Paying compliments seems like the right way to go; after all, kids get a kick out of being praised and get a boost of confidence. Yet over time, this type of labeling and praise can limit their scope and segment them into certain abilities and not much else. So much so that the “artistic one” believes she can and should stick to art, while the “athletic one” can garner most attention by excelling in sports.
Not only does applying these labels limit their reach, it also makes them feel like worse if they don’t live up to the hype. A boy who has been told all his life that he is smart believes that his “smartness” is inherent and has little to do with the actual effort he puts into studying and learning. So when faced with a challenge outside of his comfort zone, he not only feels worse for not understanding the material with ease, he also doesn’t even want to try (for fear of not living up to the title of “smart” any longer).
Instead, when we focus more on the effort he took to study (“You got an A on the test! Looks like all that studying paid off.”), he will likely attribute his successes to his own efforts, and his failures to the lack of it (“I didn’t do well on the test because I didn’t study enough,” not “…because I’m not smart enough”).
#2: “It’s okay” (and its partner, “Don’t cry”)
When our kids are upset, hurt or sad, the first words out of my mouth are usually “It’s okay” or “Don’t cry.” We want to soothe our kids and help them cope with whatever hurt they’ve just experienced. Yet at these times, we need to choose our words wisely. Telling our kids “It’s okay” assumes that everything is okay when clearly, in their eyes, it’s not.
Similarly, saying “Don’t cry” pushes our kids to rush through their emotions and “be happy already.” This can speak more to our own discomfort at having to deal with their negative emotions. Obviously it’s not healthy for kids to be sad all the time, but hushing up their cries implies that sadness is taboo or abnormal.
Instead, comfort your kids in other ways. Assure them that you’re there, hold them, or simply let them be. After all, it’s rarely up to us to determine when it really is okay, and when it’s time to stop crying.
#3: “Did you brush your teeth/put your toys away/eat your food?” (knowing full well he didn’t)
My three-year-old emerged from using the potty without any sound of running water. “Did you wash your hands?” I asked him, knowing for a fact that he completely skipped this step.
“Um… yeah!” he replied.
And who can blame him for lying? Asking questions you already know the answers to and that are borderline accusatory can only breed lies as he tries to save face. Instead, just ask, “Can you wash your hands?” or simply, “Wash your hands, please.”
#4: “Good job!”
This is perhaps the phrase I struggle with the most, considering that it’s often out my mouth before I even realize what I’m saying. So what’s the big deal with saying “good job”?
First, saying “good job” too often can lead kids to rely too much on our opinions to feel good about themselves. They might even lose interest in the activity if we don’t offer praise often enough (ideally, kids should enjoy the activity even if no witnesses were around to offer said praise). And most importantly, saying “good job” places judgment, which, at times can be appropriate, but often should simply be left out of the equation.
Rather than saying “good job,” offer descriptive praise, which means describing what is going on rather than evaluative praise, which places judgment on the action. For instance, say, “It looks like you’re enjoying your toy,” or “You did it!”
#5: “Say ‘sorry’.”
Here’s another one that slips past my mouth more than it should, and it’s usually when I’m trying to school my three-year-old on something he shouldn’t have done. Yet how genuine are his words when they’re forced? Not only are his words empty, but telling him to say sorry just might make him feel more shamed. Perhaps more tantamount to the issue is that telling him to say sorry slaps an immediate resolution to the conflict without delving further into why he got frustrated in the first place, or what he could have done instead.
This doesn’t imply that kids are off the hook. And I do think reminding our kids to say sorry is appropriate for accidental mishaps, like inadvertently knocking my eye with his hand as my son did tonight. It’s akin to reminding kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as part of manners.
However, for other situations, we can achieve better results when we approach the situation with a different tactic. For instance, acknowledge his intentions and any underlying feelings he may have that prompted him to misbehave. “You seem tired,” would show empathy on your part and possibly point to a reason why he acted up.
Then you can acknowledge other people’s feelings, thereby encouraging empathy on his part: “When you raised your voice, your brother got scared and upset.” You can even offer suggestions on what he can do instead. “Can you try kissing his head? Maybe that will make him feel better.”
If anything, at least suggest saying sorry. Many times my son will get upset when he realizes he has upset us. When I see him upset, I suggest, “You can say ‘sorry’ and that would make me feel better.”
How many of the five phrases do you find yourself saying on a regular basis? Let us know in the comments below!