We hear it all the time “You were such a good boy today!” or “You are so talented.” Or maybe you overhear parents chatting about how “special” or how “smart” their child is. Now, this may come off as a surprise being I am a child therapist but I say we need to stop this immediately. Why? Evaluating and praising children for their character traits or as “good” or “bad” creates a conditional acceptance of themselves. Now as parents you can understand that your atta boy doesn’t mean they are not valuable when they are misbehaving or make a mistake but children don’t have this capacity. Therefore, the message that is sent when we say “good boy” is that they are only good as HUMAN BEINGS when they are behaving in a certain way or successful at certain things. When we say “you are so smart” we also communicate that their smartness is an innate ability that is fixed, not something that takes effort and practice. This in turn leads to children feeling overly proud when they are “the best or smartest” and less than and worthless when they are not on top often leading giving up behavior.
Behaviorally, children may only be motivated by a desire for some external reward, have low frustration tolerance when they are not able to do something just right, and berate and degrade themselves when they are not the best in class. As teenagers on one side this can turn into low self-confidence, low motivation, and even acting out as they struggle to find consistent value and good feeling in who they are. And on the other end this can turn into arrogance, feelings of superiority, entitlement, and intolerance of others.
In place of praising your child as a good boy/girl, BE SPECIFIC. What is it about their behavior that you are proud of. Are they trying really hard, being patient, or being nice and considerate to their sibling? Look beneath the person and praise the behavior and the process. In place of the good girl aim for the “I love how you kept trying even when it got difficult” or “Great job listening”. Communicate to your child that they have worth regardless of whether they were successful or unsuccessful at something. For example “I like how you stayed calm when you lost the game” or “I like the effort you put into your homework and you got 100%”. This does wonders on helping children separate who they are from what they do and shifts them from believing their ability is fixed to a belief that they are capable of a lot if they put effort in. In an already competitive world that judges people based off their successes and achievements reinforce the essential ingredients to these outcomes- perseverance, hard work, effort, patience, and acceptance of yourself. You will end up with a child-teenager-adult that leans into the discomfort, embrace challenges with open arms, and values themselves in the face of a failure.
So if you want your child to feel in control of his future and believe in his ability to improve start praising his or her behavior in place of fixed traits like how handsome, smart or talented he is.
PS: It also works the other way in regards to rating your behavior as a parent (the good and the bad) and NOT you as a person.
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