I don’t think it would come as a surprise to any parent that calling your child “stupid”, or some other negative label, is going to have negative effects on their behavior, self-esteem, and even personality development. But it might surprise you that some seemingly positive labels can, too!
Growing up, I was a pretty good kid: I’ve always been a rule-follower (to a fault); I was very quiet and easy to please. It just wasn’t in my nature to talk back or get into trouble (this is less true for a few of my teenage years, sorry mom). I have four siblings with four personalities very different from my own, who tended to make more waves than I did. Not that they weren’t good kids, just more like the typical kid than I was. Because I got into less trouble than my sisters and brother, they started calling me “the good one”, “perfect”, or “the smart one”. This kind of labeling doesn’t seem so bad, and honestly, I would take that kind of “name calling” over most anything else. However, labeling, even with positive labels, can have negative effects.
Lets start with the POSITIVE
Being called “perfect” for all those growing up years caused me to set a standard for myself. I felt that because they thought I was a certain way, that’s exactly what I needed to be. It caused me to push myself to be perfect, especially in school. I was a model student. I studied hard, I learned a lot, and I never got less than an A-. I just didn’t accept anything less than that of myself. All my hard work toward “perfection” academically got me a full-ride scholarship in college. In this instance, the label really paid off.
But here is the NEGATIVE
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even realized the negative effects of my label as “perfect”. I am afraid of failure. In fact, my fear of failing has kept me from doing so many things. If I was presented with an opportunity to take on something new, I tended to pass if I thought there was even a slight chance that I would fall short or “look stupid”. I felt like any kind of mistake would mean I was imperfect, and therefore, not good.
If I made a mistake in any way, I hid it from whomever I could. I never allowed myself to openly mess up. I didn’t feel like I could share my failures with anyone so I just bottled them all up. Talk about unhealthy. Now I feel like I’m so full of walls covering up my mistakes that a lot of me is closed off. Even now, as a 30-year-old mother of 4, it’s hard for me to admit my mistakes or when I’m wrong, or when I’ve failed. I’m working hard on it, and my kids help out a lot (they’re brutally honest, as little kids are, and love me even when I screw up). I don’t blame my siblings in any way. They were doing what siblings do. I don’t blame anyone. But I know I want to somehow do things differently with myself from here on out.
What we tend to do
My oldest child learns easily. She’s like a sponge for knowledge. She excels in school with very little effort. She’s heard me call her “smart” like 6 bazillion times. Last week, she came home from school completely devastated about her score on her math test. She got 88% and concluded that she wasn’t good at math and felt like a failure. 88%!! My heart dropped into my stomach and I realized that I’m repeating this cycle with my own child. All her life, when I would I give her praise it sounded a lot like this, “You are so smart!” “You are such an artist!” “You’re such a natural!” While these statements are all positive and any parent would feel good about saying these things to their child, it can actually be counterproductive. Telling a child they’re smart, talented, a natural, or even like in my case “perfect”, can add a lot of pressure to keep that label. Any kind of failure will just knock them over because suddenly they don’t fit under that label anymore.
What to do instead
After I got to this point in my thinking, I was like, “Okay so I’m messing my kid up. But what am I supposed to be saying to her instead??” So I Googled it, and what I found caused me to jump up and run into the other room where my hubster was, and wave my phone in his face saying “Look! My weirdness is an actual thing!” There’s a wise woman named Carol Dweck who has done much research on this very topic. After I read over her study, I felt vindicated! She described me in almost the same words I used to describe myself. So let me paraphrase what she said we should do instead…
Praise your child for trying and for their efforts: When your baby brings home an impressive report card, focus on their hard work instead of the fact that things come easily to them. Saying “I’m so proud of the hard work you put into school!” is better than “All A’s? Look how smart you are!”
When your child scores a goal in his soccer game, say, “Look at how all your hard practice has paid off!” instead of, “You are a natural at soccer!”
Praise them for the work they’ve done or for their behavior: Pointing out the specific work they’ve done well would sound like, “You did a great job with those spelling words!” or, “I can tell you did your best work on that art project!”
This whole thing is pretty new to me. It’s going to take some serious effort on my part to turn this whole “labeling” bus around. But I think it’s important to do if I want to help build-up my children in the right way. I also wanted to share my story to bring this issue to people’s attention. In some of my articles I give advice, and in some I ask for it. This article is both. I would really love to hear your thoughts on this. What are your experiences with this (positive or negative)? What is working for you? Help! (Please and thank you)
**The thoughts and opinions I have expressed are totally mine. Carol Dweck did not ask me to say any of this, nor does she endorse this blog in any way (but that would be awesome if she did).Read More