It’s distressing when your child is hard on themselves or is reluctant to try a new activity because they’re worried they can’t do it even before trying. We want our kids to be accepting of themselves, and to “cut themselves some slack” when they feel they’ve fallen short. We also want them to have the confidence to enjoy trying new experiences.
My son was about 7 years old when I first saw him judging himself. He crumpled up his artwork and threw it in the fireplace, and when he saw me looking on anxiously as though I might retrieve it, he said, “Leave it! It’s awful!” He also became reluctant to do math, believing he was “terrible at math” because he compared himself with a much older classmate. And he outright refused to participate in some of the school sports activities before even trying.
I was worried, but I was also completely mystified about why the behavior had started. I’d poured my whole heart and soul into learning to parent him in a way that would teach him to be loving and accepting of himself. I could see his gifts so clearly. It pained me to see him judge himself and his accomplishments so harshly.
I also didn’t want him to miss out on things in his life because of feeling too anxious or self-critical to give it a try. I wanted him to be confident enough to be his authentic self, follow his instincts, and even take a few risks sometimes.
So where on earth had self-judgment come from?
As I reflected, I considered that for some kids, hesitation can be their personality, and they prefer to stand back and watch before engaging. This was certainly true of my son.
However, at other times, kids won’t risk trying because they might not be “good” at it, so they won’t even start. It feels too scary and vulnerable.
My son’s self-judgment didn’t make sense to me because I knew I’d never judged him and had always praised and supported him 100% in his endeavors. So I dug into the research and started experimenting with different approaches, and here’s what I discovered.
“Good” and “good job” create an Inner Critic
Using the words “good” and “bad” as descriptors can be damaging to self-confidence, even if you only tell them when they’ve done a good job, and never use the word “bad” to describe their behavior or accomplishments.
The problem with saying “good” or “good job” when your child is successful in their efforts or when they’ve done something you appreciate, is that kids learn to believe that they’re only good if they reach the end-result outcome that they desired (or that you approve of). In other words, “I’m good if the cat drawing turns out the way I wanted”, or if my parent/teacher said it was good; “I’m bad (at drawing) if it didn’t turn out the way I wanted”. These beliefs form automatically in the subconscious mind; our kids aren’t consciously aware of doing this.
That’s how using the words “good” or “bad” as descriptors creates an Inner Critic and feeds it. Ultimately it leads to perfectionism, and a tendency to judge oneself and others.
It also leads to being a people-pleaser and seeking approval, rather than marching to the beat of one’s own drum and staying authentic.
Using language of self-love
You can help your child be gentler with themselves by avoiding the use of “good” and “good job” in your everyday language. The following are some examples of what to say instead.
Focusing on feelings and observations
If your child draws a picture of a cat really well, instead of saying ‘good job’, you can celebrate their accomplishment by:
- sharing your feelings (“I’m happy for you!”), or
- sharing what you like about it (“I love the way you drew the ears!”).
If you have a sensitive child who is hard on themselves, anxious, or reluctant to try new activities, you can avoid using the word “good” when you’re celebrating their participation or accomplishments. For example:
- “I noticed in your swimming lesson today that you swam all the way across the pool without stopping–I’m happy for you!” or
- “Wow! You must feel pretty proud of your accomplishment–you’ve been working on that for a long time!”
You’re at a beginner level, honey
I’ve also found it helpful with my son to use the words “beginner level” to help him describe his competence level when he’s learning a new skill. So, if he says, “I’m terrible at skating”, I might remind him, “You’re at a beginner level, honey. Everyone skates like this when they’re at a beginner level”. I got the idea after reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and watching her TED talk, in which she differentiates between a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset.
Someone who has a fixed mindset believes that skills and abilities are something you’re born with–you either have them or you don’t. In other words, you’re either good at something, or you’re bad at it. It follows from this belief that if you believe that you’ll perform poorly at something at the outset, why would you even try?
As adults, we know that it’s rare for someone to even be competent, let alone excellent, at a skill or activity that they’re trying for the first time. But that logic doesn’t help your child understand or have the willingness to try. The drive to be accepted and belong by your tribe (e.g., family, classmates) is hardwired into the human reptilian brain, and the fear will stop them from trying if they already have this fixed mindset belief pattern.
On the other hand, a person who has a growth mindset believes that skills and abilities can be developed through practice and effort. They know it’s going to take time, so they’re more willing to dive in and give it a try. They don’t have such high expectations for their initial performance, so they’re less afraid of failing.
“Beginner level” implies that we aren’t just “good” at something or “bad” at it, nor are we good or bad human beings based on the outcomes of our efforts. It’s a matter-of-fact way of stating your child’s level of competence without judging it. It encourages self-acceptance. This language helps build a growth mindset.
The language we use helps build our children’s beliefs. When we focus on feelings, observations and a neutral assessment of competence level, that helps our kids learn to make accurate appraisals of themselves without judgment. They’re more likely to learn to be accepting of themselves and their progress or ability, regardless of whether they’re a beginner or excelling. These are the skills that build self-love and self-confidence.
Published first on Medium