Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Watching What We Say To Our Kids

When my oldest, N, was young, probably toddler-aged, I read in a book or on a blog or in some article a very, very important bit of parenting advice that has stuck with me more than anything else I've read or tried, and applies regardless of what other parenting or discipline methods you subscribe to. It has to do with how we talk to our kids, both in praise and in displeasure.

It's a simple concept, really, but in practice it takes concentration and self-control. What it boils down to is, when we talk to our children about their behavior, positive or negative, good or bad, it's vital to talk about the action, not the character of the child. We need to reinforce actions we want them to take again, and we want to point out and correct actions we want them to change. What we don't want to do is praise or criticize things they can't change or traits they can't "do."

Let's look at a positive example first.

Let's say your kid is very smart (of course!), and they bring home their first report card, and it's straight A's (of course), and the teacher's comment is that your child is a pleasure to have in class and is above grade level in every subject. That's fantastic. You're ecstatic! You've always demanded academic excellence of your children, and you knew he had it in him, and you're thrilled that he's living up to all your expectations for him. You want to convey to your child that you are very happy with his performance in school and want him to continue to excel, put out effort, work hard, and enjoy learning.

What not to say: "You're so smart!"

Why not? He is smart! He should be proud of himself!

Yes, but "smart" isn't something he does or doesn't do. "Smart" isn't something he can change about himself. "Smart" isn't a lesson he can learn or an action he can repeat. And what happens when he fails his first test or forgets to do his homework or gets yelled at by a teacher? Is he suddenly not "smart"? How is he supposed to remedy any setbacks with "smart"?

What to say instead: "You worked hard and it shows! I'm so proud of the effort you made!"

Here, you're praising what he did, not the trait of "smartness." This way he knows that hard work and persistence is what's going to get him ahead in life and in school. "Smart" is all well and good, but it's what you do with "smart" that will make the difference. Plenty of smart people do poorly in school, fail out, or give up, either because they're bored or because they don't know how to deal with not understanding something or failing once. With praising the effort rather than the trait, he now knows that it's up to him to continue to put out that effort to do well, and that if there is a setback or failure, he can step it up and keep trying in order to succeed.

Now, let's look at the flip side - a negative example.

By negative, I mean a behavior you want to correct.

Let's say your kid has trouble getting ready for school on time. She dawdles when she's getting dressed, wastes time while eating breakfast, and takes twice as long as she should to pack up her backpack, and even then manages to forget stuff, and you find yourself constantly having to bring her lunch or homework to school for her later. This, understandably, causes frustration every morning, and in a moment of pique, you yell at her.

What not to say: "You're so lazy! What's wrong with you? It's the same every morning! Why are you so slow?!"

Why not? She is being lazy and slow! And it's annoying! And you're sick of it!

Yes, of course you're sick of it, and frustrated, and you can't understand why she hasn't learned yet. But telling her she's lazy and slow is reinforcing an image she's already created of herself. And if she's a lazy, slow kid, then that's just who she is - see, even Mom thinks so - and it's not going to change now. You even said so: it's the same every morning.

What to say instead: (And, yes, you can yell this if you need to!) "It takes so long for you to get ready in the morning! Why don't you get your stuff together the night before! That would save so much time, and I wouldn't have to constantly be bringing your things to you at school! You need to get dressed before you eat breakfast, and you need to eat more quickly."

Here, we're talking about specific actions she can take to improve the mornings. Suggesting, even yelling, that she get her backpack together in the evening gives her a goal, something clear she can do to help her along and save her time. Maybe she honestly hasn't thought of doing that, and having you plant the idea is all she needed. Knowing that she doesn't get breakfast until she's dressed might mean she'll get dressed more quickly, because she has a goal. And, if you're willing to go that far, you can even add in that if she doesn't get dressed fast enough, she won't have time for breakfast and will either have to skip it (not recommended) or take a banana or something along in the car or on the walk to school so she isn't starving.

It's very important in a scenario like this that when she does make a positive change, such as getting her backpack ready the night before, that you acknowledge it. And, referring to above, don't say, "Good job!" Say, "Wow, getting your things ready last night made it so much easier this morning. Look at that, you're ready to go 10 minutes early!" You don't actually have to praise her, but you definitely need to show that you noticed and point out what a difference it made. If she's anything like my kid, you'll see her swell with pride at having done something "right," and hopefully that's a feeling she'll want to recapture and will continue to improve.

Let's look at one more example of each.

First, the positive.

Let's say your teenage daughter is very pretty (of course!). People are always telling her, "You're so pretty!" Even you take pride in the fact that she's so beautiful and perfect. One day, she wears an outfit that suits her especially well. Her makeup is done just-so, her hair is shiny and perfect. You're so lucky to have such a pretty daughter.

What not to say: "You're so pretty!"

Why not? She is pretty!

Well, we all know that beauty can fade, and while girls can get by on their looks for a while, eventually they also need some substance to their character to be anything in life. I hope that beyond beauty, you have dreams for your daughter to succeed in areas that require persistence, intelligence, or kindness as well.

What to say instead: I think there's a twofold reaction needed here. First, if you want to express that she's looking especially good that day, start with, "Wow, I love that outfit on you. You pick out such nice clothing." This is praising the act of choosing an attractive outfit, rather than the trait of "being pretty." She can continue to choose flattering, appropriate clothing for herself even if something happens to alter her current looks. But it's also important that you don't emphasize beauty over everything else. Be sure you're praising her for other achievements or activities, such as acts of kindness, persistence, or academic excellence. She needs to know there's more to life than looks, and she also needs to know that you value her for more than her appearance.

And now something you want to change.

Your four-year-old son is having trouble with his behavior at preschool. He's been biting and pinching other kids, and finally the director calls you in and says that if there's one more incident, he'll be asked to leave. The violence, defiance, and other difficult behaviors have to stop, because it's causing too much of a disruption and other parents are angry that their children are being hurt. You know it's time for some serious action on your part.

What not to say: "You're such a bad kid! Look at you, four years old and getting kicked out of school! Why can't you behave?!"

Why not?

I hope this time it's obvious. At four years old, you've already told him he's "bad" and that he can't behave. He's going to internalize statements like these and just assume that it's true: He's a bad kid who can't behave. And guess what bad kids who can't behave do? They misbehave!

Calling names or assigning negative traits to your child will only make things worse. Instead, they need to know both the "don't"s and "do"s of what happened so that they can hopefully make corrections in the future.

What to say instead: "Biting and pinching hurts other kids and makes them sad. If you hurt other kids, you won't be allowed to go to school anymore, and I think that will make you sad. You always tell me how much you like going to school." That's the "don't" part. But he may need more help. Continue with, "If you don't like something another child does, you need to use your words to tell them. Say, 'Don't do that!' instead of pinching, or go tell the teacher if you're upset about something." Now he has an action he can take. You've given him an alternative to violence. You're telling him to use words, and not just a vague, "use words," but exactly what words to use.

It's important to model that behavior for him, too. If he tries to bite or pinch a sibling when he's angry, or he takes a swipe at you when you do something he doesn't like, that's your opportunity to show him, in the heat of the moment, how he should act. Stop the negative behavior first, physically if you have to (grab his wrist to stop a pinch, or pull him away from the sibling - not something violent, just stop it before he gets there, if possible), and then supply the words instead. "We don't pinch, remember?! Say, 'David, I was playing with that toy and you took it. Please give it back!'" Or, "We don't hit Mommy! If you're angry with me, you can say, 'Mommy, I'm mad that you won't let me watch TV!'" Then encourage him to try it. That doesn't mean you have to let him do whatever it was he wanted to do, but you're giving him words for his feelings and a healthy way to express those feelings, instead of hitting you.

I'm not saying you're going to see a change overnight in any of these scenarios. Indeed, if there are deeper issues affecting your child's behavior, it may take far more than simple words to make that change. But words are a great place to start, because kids take far more meaning from what we say than we think they will. They also imitate what they hear and internalize values based on what you say to them. If we show them the proper behavior, demonstrate it in context, and live according to the values we want them to absorb, most kids will live up to, or even exceed, the goals we have for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment