How Our Words Shape Our Kids' View of Themselves

by Sanya Pelini August 17, 2017

Child Hugging mother's Leg

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” is a phrase that initially appeared in 1872 to teach kids that name-calling was harmless. It was one of the greatest lies ever told to kids. Words hurt. And the words we repeatedly hear can become self-fulfilling prophecies. People tend to act in line with what they believe is expected of them. We tend to be clumsier when around people who think of us as clumsy. We have more to say around people who think we’re interesting. “Mean” kids are likely to continue acting mean when they’re persistently described as mean. In other words, the labels used to describe us can lead us to believe that certain behavior is a fundamental part of our nature. Overhearing someone say something not so nice about us affects us and has an impact on our relationship. Think about it. When is the last time you overheard someone say something nasty about you. How did it make you feel? People’s negative perceptions may not break our bones, but they sure hurt. The same is true for kids. What we say to kids matters more than we think. It shapes their personality and shapes the relationships we develop with them, well beyond the childhood years. Research suggests that labels can alter behavior. In one, Rosenthal and Jacobson were able to show that kids whose teachers expected enhanced performance performed better than other kids. Approximately 20 percent of the students in an elementary school were chosen at random and presented to teachers as “intellectual bloomers.” All students were given the same IQ test at the beginning and then at the end of the study. The researchers found that the students who had been presented as “intellectual bloomers” had significantly higher scores during the second phase of the IQ test. Although the results were met with much criticism and have remained inconclusive and difficult to replicate, the researchers suggested that when students were presented as “intellectual,” teachers were more likely to pay closer attention to them in times of difficulty. In other words, the label influenced how the kids were perceived. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s studies inspired what is now commonly referred to as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect. This phenomenon suggests that positive expectations have the power to affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposite phenomenon – the Golem effect – suggests that low expectations lead to poorer performance. What these studies reveal is that there’s always a better word to describe your kid’s behavior. There are always two sides to every story. An argumentative kid can also be a good negotiator. A shy kid can be an observant kid. A stubborn kid can be a kid who knows what he wants. It’s always nicer to hear positive things about us than negative ones. When we focus on our children’s positive traits, we communicate what we think about them – disorganized or creative, too loud or confident, shy or mindful. Our words also set the stage for how others see our kids. When we repeatedly define a child as “really shy,” others are likely to share this view and consider this as a negative trait. Yet when you choose a different word to define the same character – say “peaceful” – others are more likely to view the same character trait as positive. Positive labels help build up our kids, but they do not mean we should excuse misbehavior. Sometimes we must call things “as they are.” Describing an aggressive kid as a leader or a sloppy one as an artist only masks the problems that require our attention. In other words, changing labels doesn’t mean letting your kid get away with careless or disrespectful behavior. It means avoiding negative terms while making a conscious attempt to correct misbehavior, for instance, by using positive reinforcement the right way. Replacing negative labels with positive ones ultimately changes how we view our kids, their behavior, and how we react to it. Next time you’re about to describe your child as “nosy,” switch that to “inquisitive” and see how it changes everything. What negative labels do you use? With which positive labels can you replace them?

Sanya Pelini


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