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Monday, September 29, 2014

Mommy Monday: talking to children to encourage self identity

Today's Mommy post is going to be a little bit different, but it is about an issue that I care deeply for so bear with me while I philosophize for a bit. To give you a quick background: I am a single mother to twin girls who are currently 2.5 years old.

I have been making a conscious effort for the past couple of years not to say things like, "you are so silly/smart/strong", "you're a good girl", "you're such a good reader/cook/helper" or "you are a big girl now". When you start noticing them, it is crazy how many times those comments are made to children. It seems that the default way to praise children is to point out the positive character trait ("you're so strong etc") or maturity ("you're so big") they are demonstrating.

At first glance these comments seem perfectly harmless- wonderful even. Adults are noticing a child's positive actions and praising them, encouraging and fostering those character traits. And I do not doubt that the people who make these comments to my children, or any other child, are doing so out of love. I hope that my girls will also take those comments that way for the rest of their lives.

But I think when adults say these things, it sends two subtle messages: 1) that the child's actions define who they are, and 2) that the adults around them define who the child is for them.

I am a people-pleaser. I am the oldest child in my family and I grew up as a preacher's kid. I think very highly of my parents and have a wonderful relationship with them to this day, but those two realities of my life made me susceptible to finding my self-worth and identity in others, especially the important adults in my life (my parents first and foremost, and my teachers and other important adults secondarily). I am very aware of this aspect of my character, and want to do my best to discourage this trait in my children, because I believe that it has hurt my self-worth and inhibited and twisted the development of my self-identify as well.

Let me give a concrete example to demonstrate the difference I am aiming for. Let's say one of my girls did a somersault for the first time (which yes, she did recently, thank you very much). If I say, "Wow! You're so strong!", my child starts to understand that when she achieves a new physical skill, others see her as a strong person. If I tell her, "Wow! You just did a somersault!", my child hears the acknowledgement of her effort and accomplishment and feels proud of what she did, but is not defined as a person by that action. What if she tries to do a handstand next and she can't get it? With the former comment, she may see herself as a failure- she is a strong person and should be able to do these things- or she may even feel a loss of identity, because if she cannot perform a physical task she is no longer the person that I told her she was. With the latter comment, it is simply a failure of a particular task (and dealing with failure would be another topic for another time) rather than a failure of her person or identity.

This phenomena becomes even more apparent when you add the twin element to the mix. When I tell one child that she is strong because she did a somersault, but the other child can't do one yet, she starts to think that she must not be strong. In this case, she is probably less likely to keep working at physical skills, because she is not a strong person. There is real danger in this scenario because twins (and siblings of different ages, to a lesser degree) compare themselves to each other (and others compare them to each other as well). It is very easy for a child to lock themselves into a particular identity, like "I am the sporty one and she is the artsy one".

Focusing on individual accomplishments and events ("you did" statements), rather than defining a child's identify by their actions ("you are" statements), gives children the freedom to continue exploring all facets of development and learning without feeling like certain things are "their area" and others not. It has been shown time and time again that when a person sincerely believes they can do something, they usually will, and if they believe they can't, they usually won't.

This aspect of defining who a child is and what they are good at comes into play in school as well. If I respond to a child who answers a question correctly by saying, "You're so smart!", the focus is on that child's identity, not on that particular accomplishment. This mindset can lead to the idea that some are born smart and some aren't (or at least that we are "smart" in different subject areas), and that innate trait will determine whether or not we are successful (there have been several studies on this that I find really fascinating- you can read a little about them here).

As a mother, I want my children to develop their identities through a life-long process of discovery- not by listening to what others (including me) tell them to be. I want them to find joy in little triumphs every day- not because it proves to me or anyone else that they are worthy, or have a certain desirable characteristic, but because they accomplished something. And that is enough.


  1. I love this post Elizabeth. I too have thought a lot about this concept within the last year. I remember hearing a piece on NPR about how, in America we tend to say "you're smart", whereas in Japan, adults tend to compliment the tenacity of the child by saying something like, "You worked very hard on that". Haha, I just checked out your link and realized that's the article I was talking about :)

    1. Ha! Great minds think alike :) Thank you for your comment. I read the original study about the 1st grade math problem during my master's course work and was so intrigued, having grown up in the Japanese school system myself. It's amazing (and scary!) to think of the power our words have on children!