So what exactly AM I supposed to say to my child now?

Photo by Suzette Hibble

Some of the recent research on the psychology of children is showing that saying things like, “You’re so smart! Good job! And He’s so cute!” can actually harm a child’s emerging sense of self-confidence. Apparently when we tell a child she’s smart because she got an A on her report card, she automatically associates the two and begins to think that if she doesn’t get an A, she’ll no longer be considered “smart.”

In an effort to encourage more internal motivation and less dependence on external validation, researchers and other experts are recommending that we remove this kind of empty praise from our vocabulary with our kids.

So now, whenever I say “good job!” to my daughter I immediately suck in my breath and think, “Oh no! I’ve said it. I just totally screwed up my kid.” Granted, that’s probably not the most useful thought, but there you have it

Then there’s the fact that our children are like a mirror that reflects just a little bit too well. When I hear things come out of my daughter’s mouth, it’s clear that she learned them at home (or pretty close to home). So then I begin to listen to what comes out of my mouth even more carefully and I’m almost always surprised at what I discover.

So now I’m left wondering what IS OK and how I can foster the language (in myself, my family and the larger community) that will most serve my child. The practice that jumps to mind is the practice of acknowledgment.

When we acknowledge one another we’re not just labeling each other as “good” or “smart” or “cute;” instead we are sharing our feelings, our experiences, and the impact that another person has had on us. I’ve written about acknowledgment before here: So check that out if you’d like a specific structure to follow.

I also think it’s always OK to say “Thank you” as long as we really mean it. But watch out for anything you’re saying that isn’t exactly what you mean. It’s easy to get into a habit of saying something only to reflect upon it later and realize that what you’ve been saying is no longer true! And things like “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry,” can lose their meaning and become simply “the polite thing to say.”

So this week is all about examining the language we use with our children (and with everyone else) to see if there are things we’ve been saying that aren’t serving us or those we love. Do we over-do empty praise? Have we gotten so focused on telling people what’s wrong that we’ve forgotten to acknowledge their efforts? Are we just going through the motions of being polite without really expressing the heartfelt sentiments? Or is there another way that your language doesn’t truly express what you’re intending? And, what would you RATHER be saying?

I’ve recently realized that I sometimes say, “No, no, no!” so this week I’m committing to removing the frantic and repeated “nos” from my vocabulary. I think I’ll replace them with, “Stop!” I’m curious, what have you noticed about your language that you’re ready to change?

Thanks so much for being a part of this community! I appreciate you.

Big hugs, Shelly


 @awakeshelly Once again, you have written a post near and dear to my heart.  The language we use is by far the greatest opportunity we have to nurture our children and help them navigate the world.  


Being able to step back and listen to ourselves, and let our children have their own reactions, can be challenging.  As we bring attention to things, "I noticed you were talking to the little girl with the purple shirt in the playground," or, "I heard your friend say ____ when we were leaving school," leaves room for your child to say something-- and gives you a chance to hear what is s/he is thinking about.


How we talk about the world also models for them.  Our choice of words models understanding and compassion- "The woman at checkout was very cranky.  I wonder what happened earlier?" or, "Yes, that outfit is a bit wild... do you think that's his style or maybe something else is going on?" sets up a child to think. (Rather than the alternative-- "That woman was so obnoxious" or "Wow-- that guy must be crazy!" which creates meaning for kids.)


Recently, someone mentioned to me that I sometimes say, "You know," when I'm talking, so I'm being mindful of that.  I think it's akin to parents saying, "Okay?" at the end of a sentence which can open up a lot of opportunity for discussion where there wasn't meant to be.  Re-phrasing, so an interaction sounds like: "We've had a long day!  What's next after bath?" sounds different than, "5 minutes until book and bed, okay?"


I pay a lot of attention to my language.

The biggest thing I paid attention to for a long time and pick on others for is the use of the word "you" when discussing a personal experience.

e.g. "when you go to this place you just feel so peaceful" .... who me? Who are you talking about? I haven't been to that place yet and I might not feel peaceful there.

I think it is more vulnerable to own our experience with the use of the word "I".


Which has me thinking... what then to talk about when a child gets say, a good grade?


Could it be possible to own our experience and say "I noticed you were working really hard on that report and I feel really good to know that your teacher appreciated it and showed that with a good grade. How do you feel about your work and your grade?"


There are many other elements of language I look at, this is one of them... maybe I will write about it later.

AwakeShelly moderator

 @yourfriendkira As usual I completely agree with you Kira. It sounds like you're pointing out the difference between pure observation and judgment, which is a hugely important distinction to make. And thanks for sharing your unconscious language habit. I feel so much more human and connected when I know that other parents are doing the same kinds of awareness practices that I do. You know? ;)

AwakeShelly moderator

 @Damien_Monkey Yes! I love this perspective Damien. Thanks for reminding us all of the power of the "I" statement. I'm amazed at how different your example is from simply saying, "Wow you got an A! You're so smart." When I read yours, I feel relaxed and respected. When I read the one I just wrote, I feel elated and then anxious and unsure how to proceed.I especially like the idea of asking children how THEY feel about their grades, accomplishments etc. If we want them to tune in to their own feelings and be driven by an internal motivation, then I think we must first ask and invite them to notice their own thoughts and feelings, separate from ours.


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