How to Talk to Children, Not Just Girls

Lisa Bloom’s spot-on “How to Talk to Girls” has been making the rounds on the blogosphere to great acclaim. If you haven’t read it yet, please do so! Thanks to this article, I have consciously changed how I talk to little girls. The gist of the article is that we should actually try to talk to little girls about their interests and thoughts, rather than just giving a complement and focusing on their appearance (as if that’s all little girls are good for). As for Miss L, I still complement her appearance, but sparingly. Quite frankly, the only way I can get her to hold still long enough for me to get her hair out of her face is to tell her that it will be “so pretty” when I am done. So for us, “pretty” means we took the time to look slightly better than homeless, and I’m ok with that. I don’t think it will cause anorexia, but I’m on the lookout!

The article got me thinking about compliments in general. We hear so much about children with low self-esteem, but we also hear about children who think they deserve trophies just for showing up, no hard work required. Neither of these seem like good options to me.

After some digging, I found two articles that offered decent, although somewhat conflicting, suggestions. Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards is interesting; if you don’t have the time to read the book, check out this article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job.” He makes some good points–that compliments are judgments, which leads children to depend more on their parents’ evaluations than themselves. 

Kohn makes some sense, but I can’t say I wholeheartedly agree with him. I want Miss L to trust herself, to decide for herself what hobbies she likes, and to be confident in her decisions. But I also know that children crave praise, and I think that praise, if done correctly, can help children develop self-esteem and self-reliance. IF DONE CORRECTLY. Good grief, yet another way we can screw up our kids!

Anyway, I have stopped reflexively saying “Good job” and often just make a comment about what she did, like “You put your shoe on by yourself.” But I do still compliment Miss L pretty frequently. I think she deserves it. I also think her need for my approval will come in handy when she’s 16 and trying to leave the house in a leather miniskirt and hooker boots.

A much better theory, and one that I can embrace without reservations, is John Medina’s “Why You Shouldn’t Praise Your Child’s Intelligence.” Studies show that if you praise your child’s intelligence, when your child struggles with something (which he inevitably will, I assure you!), he will be more inclined to give up than a child who has been praised for hard work. Why? Because intelligence is a fixed characteristic; you were born this way, baby! You can change a lot with practice–you can read faster, play tennis better, finally get those multiplication tables down. But your actual intelligence is a matter of genetics and luck. Not everyone can be Einstein, no matter how much they practice.

This theory is easy to put into practice. Instead of saying “You’re so smart!” when Miss L “reads” a book to me (she has memorized a couple of books), I say, “You did a great job listening, and now you know all the words!” It’s really just a matter of becoming really, really specific with compliments. A few weeks into this, and it’s already become a habit.

What about you? What do you do to encourage self-esteem and hard work? Leave a note in the comments!

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