It is easy to pick out every flaw in your kids since you spend endless hours with them, often seeing them at their worst.
You know their shortcomings, care desperately for them, and have concern for their futures. If you do not care enough to identify their failings and help them improve, who will?
Of course, it is important to guide your children and when they are off-course, to provide additional instruction, attention, and discipline.
The problems occur, however, when your children receive a constant stream of criticism or are given the same disapproving message over and over. In these situations, your children begin to believe these negative labels and begin to live up (or down) to your low expectations of them.
How Does this Work? – The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Children are not born with an image of themselves. They develop their self-perceptions over time through interactions with those closest to them.
It begins with the parents’ attitudes toward their children, which influence the messages they send both verbally and non-verbally. For example, when a baby cries, are his pleas for help and attention met lovingly or seen as an annoyance? It is these messages that children take in as truths about themselves. (i.e., pre-verbally, they consider: Am I worthy of attention or am I a burden?) Without realizing it, parents may create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the children incorporate these beliefs about themselves into their self-images.
When you use negative words to describe your children, those names can stick in your mind as well as in theirs. For example, you might categorize your child as “picky” if he does not like the feel of his new sheets. You may then notice other situations when your child is picky, such as when you serve a different brand of sauce or when your child objects to wearing a heavier sweater to school.
After a while, it seems like a fact that you have a picky child. You notice this trait constantly, and your words and actions, consciously or unconsciously, reflect this perception. The interesting thing is that your child may begin to see himself as picky and may become more demanding and finicky over time. He will become what you see him as being. In addition, this label can carry over to relationships with peers and other adults.
Even positive labels such as “Princess,” “King,” “Beautiful,” or “Baby” can lead a child to believe that they are entitled to be treated as such on a regular basis. When “Princess” is asked to clean her room, she may refuse, stating that it’s too much work and someone else should do it for her.
Labels can damage the parent-child relationship over time if you begin to see your child exclusively according to the label. It is as though a single word could describe a complex child completely. You can limit your belief in your child’s ability to grow and change and to reach her full potential.
Frequently, the words “always” or “never” accompany the labels. “You’re always so annoying.” Your child would need to be quite skilled to be “always annoying.” Rather than labeling her, you can describe her behavior as persistent.
So What Can Parents Do?
Understandably, parents can get frustrated or disappointed when their children are not meeting expectations in terms of behavior, accomplishments, development, or personality traits. Without thinking about the impact their statements might have, parents sometimes say things that they later regret.
The good news is that parents can avoid this “disabling labeling” by changing how they look at their children and their behavior. By focusing on the good in your children and “reframing” difficult traits into assets, you enhance your children’s self-esteem by helping them to feel good about themselves and their abilities.
If you believe that changes need to be made, starting the process with this more optimistic outlook will lead to greater success. By holding up a positive mirror for your children, you will help them to see themselves as capable and lovable, which ultimately affects their self-esteem and their behavior. By seeing your children as “half full,” you are showing them how they can turn their innate traits into strengths which will become their greatest assets as adults.
Although “re-framing” will not always change children’s behavior, it is a powerful tool that will help you to feel better and more hopeful about who your children are and who they will become. In turn, your children, instead of feeling judged and defensive, will see you as working with them and supporting their growth. As a result, they will be more open to your suggestions and guidance.By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator
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