Three Powerful Phrases Can Change a Child’s Life

According to some research, men speak an average of 7,000 words a day while women speak an average of 20,000. Among the thousands of words spoken each day, there are three powerful sayings with the potential to change a child’s life. The power of words, especially in response to a child’s performance or behavior, can have a profound impact on children and how they feel about themselves and their place in the world; this impact, however, can be negative or positive depending not only how something is said but also WHAT is said.

However well meaning, so much of what we say to children imparts a critical judgment. What we mean as constructive criticism is perverted by our word choices and interpreted by the child that he or she is “not good enough.” Even praise, incredibly well intentioned, very frequently has the opposite and adverse effect on a child’s self-perception and sense of achievement.

The three powerful sayings are appropriate for the classroom, the dinner table, the athletic field, and the playground.

1. “I love to watch you …( play/draw/sing/compete/perform).”

In a fascinating article in the The Post Game describing the mostly anecdotal research of Bruce Brown and Rob Miller, college student athletes were surveyed over three decades and asked what they most despised about performing youth and high school sports. In is interesting that the college athletes overwhelmingly described the feedback given to them by parents as what they most despised. Comments such as, “You would have won if the coach made a different call” or “The ref should have ruled in your favor” or “Why didn’t you do it the way it was practiced?” all led to the student-athletes troubled by their failures and approval to be conditionally related to winning.

As quoted in the article, “Nearly 75 percent of kids who play organized sports quit by age 13.” Perhaps what we need is a statement of unconditional support and encouragement. Even for educators, watching a child undertake a challenging project, artistic endeavor or science experiment without judgment can allow children to be free to appreciate and value the process of learning over the end-product of first place. “I love to watch you play.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

2. “What could you try next?”

Too often, we make children assume there is one correct answer, one correct way to solve a problem. In large measure, we behaviorally “condition” children to work for the right answer.

Failure isn’t fatal. In fact, failure is likely out greatest teacher. At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, there is a MAKESHOP area that allows visitors, adults and children alike, to build, create and experiment with various materials. As part of the process of MAKESHOP, the emphasis is again on the process, inspiring creativity and divergent thinking. As quoted on the Children’s Museum website about the MAKESHOP process: “A prompt can give a group of students something to focus on while still allowing for flexibility in the building process. How can you build a bridge? There are a lot of ways to answer that question.”

As children are building, creating, designing, or working, instead of telling them what step comes next or suggesting a specific solution, consider, “What could you try next” It gives students the freedom and support to consider their own opinions and ideas relative to the topic. It also inspires perseverance to keep working on complex and challenging assignments.

As part of a grant award to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the MAKESHOP has been expanded to the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley and the West Liberty University Center for Arts and Education. Having MAKESHOP in both of these locations allows for more children, and even college students, to experience the power of informal education in a supportive and creative environment.

3. “Tell me about …”

This saying works well for situations that involve praise or corrective discipline.

When a child brings you something to admire, whether it is a graded paper, a piece of art or a science creation, one of our immediate and reflective responses is often, “Oh, I love it” or “It’s so beautiful!” or “You are so smart/talented.” However, this type of broad praise misses an opportunity for a discussion with the child. It can also create a sense of conditional approval from a parent or a teacher. Misuse of praise can make a child less likely to engage in complex and challenging tasks for fear of risk of failure, and, over time, broad praise like “You are so brilliant!” can lessen self-worth.

When a child brings your something to admire, or tells you that he or she just finished reading an assignment or a project, consider congratulating the child on the effort involved. Ask the child to tell you about what aspects of it he or she loved. “Tell me your favorite part of this” or “Tell me how you created this” relays a powerful message that we are interested in how a child thinks. It teaches children that their perception of what was completed, and how it was undertaken, is most important (rather than the value others place on it).

Likewise, the saying, “Tell me about” is an important response when a child has engaged in an inappropriate behavior. Instead of asking, “Why did you do that?” try “Tell me about what happened. We need to talk about what you did.” Asking someone “why” they did or didn’t do something is even a difficult concept for adults to answer. Discipline is an opportunity for teaching as are all of our conversations with children.

– Dr. Keely Camden is the dean of the College of Education at West Liberty University and an associate professor of education. She is a former special education teacher.