Verbs vs. Adjectives

When I was growing up, “self-esteem” was a huge deal. Parents were exhorted to tell their kids how great we were. Not just smart, of course, but pretty, talented, strong, etc. Thirty years of research have shown that to be kind of a bad idea (click here for science!). Self-esteem is important, but no one gets self-esteem from a world in which every kid gets a trophy and we all know that we’re special snowflakes.

To be fair, my parents were not terribly over-the-top with the self-esteem thing, especially my dad. He still talks about the time I “won” first prize in my division at an elementary school science fair. My dad pointed out that no one else had entered…so I also came in last place. From an early age, my brother and I knew that a “Participation” ribbon that everyone got was meaningless. My parents didn’t ever try to change our minds about that.

I believe that kids develop a positive self-image by actually achieving things–by facing a challenge and overcoming it. I believe the science that says that kids who think of themselves as “smart” actually avoid challenges, because if they fail, then they’re not smart anymore. Similarly, I know kids who use the fact that someone has labeled them “dumb” or “lazy” to just quit trying.

The problem here is that adjectives are hard to change. Your eyes are blue. You’re good at math. It’s just part of your state. What you can change, though, is how hard you work and how willing you are to accept a challenge. Kids who think of their intellectual capacity as a fixed quantity tend to avoid challenges.

I’m also not a big fan of the way kids who are overpraised look to an adult for evaluation all the time. I’ve had the experience of teaching elementary school kids and seeing them complete a drawing and then look to me, as if to say, “Is it good?” I confounded a number of them by saying, “What do you think of it? Which part was the hardest? What is your favorite part?” Lots of them had been so used to having a parent or teacher tell them what was good about their own work that they didn’t really know how to analyze it.

As a kid, I played the violin. I had this friend, Alex M., who also played the violin. She was way, way better than I was, even though we started playing around the same age. I remember telling myself that this was because she was super talented, and I wasn’t. I still think that’s a little bit true–I marvel at my musician friends and how they can really understand the deep structures of the music, how they can make the tiniest adjustment and change the whole thing. However, I also know that it’s not quite true. Alex worked much, much harder than I did. She practiced for several hours every day; I rarely found the motivation to do more than the hour that my teacher required. She sought out other musicians and opportunities to play; I was pretty shy about getting my instrument out in front of people (because I wasn’t that good, because I didn’t play that much). Telling myself that Alex was better because she had some innate gifts was really an excuse, and maybe I even knew it then.

It is this memory that makes me determined to avoid using adjectives with Silas, and to focus instead on the verbs. I don’t say, “That’s a pretty picture,” or “You’re a good artist.” I say, “You made lots of circles in this picture” or “You used leaves as brushes. What a neat idea!”

What makes this hard is, let’s just be honest here, he is smart. At his two-year-old check-up, his doctor was asking me questions from a development check list. One of them was, “How large would you estimate his vocabulary to be?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I said.

The doctor looked at me quizzically. “Well, just ballpark. Like, two hundred words? Three hundred?”

“Two thousand?” I guessed. He looked at me like I was one of Those Moms, and maybe I am. Silas probably knows two hundred different animals alone. The kid can identify at least six different bird species that we have in our yard. He knows all the colors in a Crayola 16-pack. He can reliably count groups of six objects, can offer at least one sound for each of the ten letters that he knows, and uses similes. We are not a coaching/flashcard kind of family; he’s picked all this up on his own. Of course, he hadn’t said a word to the doctor, who, I am sure, did not believe me.

I know that he’s smart, but I try to avoid saying it, and I try to keep him from overhearing other people saying it. Instead, I focus on the work that he has done, which at his age, is considerable. Remember, only a year ago, he only said a dozen words. Now, it’s more than I can count. Early in the summer, he saw his friend Lillian (who is three years older than he is) jumping, and he couldn’t do it. He has spent the entire summer trying to learn how, and only recently mastered it. He could barely walk this time last year, and now he runs all over the place. That’s a ton of work and practice and determination, not just talent. He didn’t figure out jumping by sitting around, being innately good at it.

He completed a 20-something piece puzzle the other day, all by himself. I almost said, “You are so good at puzzles!” but I caught myself. Instead, I offered, “Wow, you did it all by yourself. Last week you couldn’t even do two pieces, and today you did all of them. You have been practicing.”

He applauded for himself and said, “Wow! You did it!” (Pronouns. Still working on pronouns.). Then he said, “Break it up? Do again?”


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  1. October 9, 2012

    This is something I’m working on. I definitely find myself saying Good Job too much, but I’m getting better about moving away from that habit. I want Gwen to feel good about herself when she works hard for something, not because someone else thinks what she did was good.

  2. October 9, 2012

    Have you read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn? I think you’d really like it. I catch myself saying “I like your picture!” (or whatever), and it takes a conscious effort to describe the drawing instead. I also try to talk about how something is a “challenge,” instead of saying it is “hard,” and how fun it is to tackle challenges. Language really does matter!
    ~Dionna @

    • October 9, 2012

      Yes, I love Alfie Kohn!
      I’ve also been thinking about something they used to say at the daycare I attended as a child. When someone would say that something was easy, they’d always respond, “Easy for some, hard for others,” and they’d point out something that was hard for the child who didn’t understand why someone else couldn’t do whatever the easy thing was.

  3. […] Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is. […]

  4. October 9, 2012

    My son also has a huge amount of words under his belt, but often keeps quiet and watchful with new people so they assume he doesn’t understand the conversation. He understands it all, and will repeat it all back to me once we are home! I am a great believer in the power of labels in creating a box for people. If we want children who are free to be themselves, then avoiding labels replacing them with real interest and genuine questions is the way to go! Great post! Sam

  5. October 9, 2012

    Yes! I can’t tell you how often I fail at remembering this, even though I totally believe it. Thanks so much for the reminder. Perhaps I’l revive my campaign to end the ridiculous practice of giving trophies to everyone who plays even one game in Little League…

  6. October 9, 2012

    this is another one for my “file”. It’s really interesting to hear from someone who actually went through the over-praising years. Your dad cracks me up. That’s a very logical man.. But how great to point that out to you (I feel certain he wasn’t trying to take anything away from you, just to give you persepctive. That’s how it sounded to me.
    My husband and I have had a terrible time not over praising and doing just what you describe… We’ve been so fortunate that the school she is going to shares your phillosophy and last year in nursery school, her teacher even had a class for parents about this.
    So, we try to temper our praise. Now I mostly do both. And like you, our daughter is truly bright and artistic, etc…
    But I understand and completly agree with the downside of over praising. When I first read about it , it was such an “aha”… I get it. Of course.
    And I certainly don’t want that for her.
    I appreciate your description of exactly how you changed what you were going to say about your sons art and what you did say. “that’s a lot of circles…” Great! That helps me think of it differently.
    And I especially like praising the *effort*.
    I also had to check out your Etsy store and have to tell you that what you’re making is so beautiful. (Praising is good for us now, isn’t it?!)

    • October 10, 2012

      I’m glad it spoke to you, as I really wasn’t sure what I should write about. I feel like “self image” is so often a code for “body image,” which we think of as a girl problem. My son sure doesn’t have a body image problem, not yet, anyway (though he is quite distressed that his baby sister “lost her penit”). I do think that labeling children is dangerous, as is projecting our dreams for them onto them. When my son was only a baby, people used to ask me what I hoped he’d be when he grew up…and they looked confused when I said, “Happy!” 🙂

      I agree with Dionna (above) when she mentioned _Unconditional Parenting_ by Alfie Kohn. I also love his _Punished by Rewards_, which I read when I worked in a corporate setting. It revolutionized how I managed people.

      And thanks for the kudos on my etsy shop! Yeah, a little praise doesn’t hurt us grown ups. 🙂 and I really needed it on a day when the toddler was cranking and the baby was cluster feeding and cluster puking. So thank you, really. It made my day.

      • October 10, 2012

        Have you seen this John Lennon Quote:
        When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

        Perfect, right?

  7. October 9, 2012

    I love this: “Kids who think of their intellectual capacity as a fixed quantity tend to avoid challenges.” Such a good reminder. It’s so true that they thrive on conquering their challenges. My (almost 2 year old) daughter has recently started climbing into her carseat by herself. It’s hard for her. It takes forever, especially since she insists on holding onto her toys while she does it! But she said to me, “It’s hard work! But I can do it!” and my heart swelled.

  8. October 9, 2012

    […] Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is. […]

  9. […] Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is. […]

  10. Jade
    October 10, 2012

    I am really working on this one too. Very good and challenging post. The words just so often slip from my mouth. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Such a great post! Very insightful and a good reminder for everyone who is praise happy or who was raised praise happy. I too love Alphie Kohn and try so very hard not to “good job” my daughter to death. It has actually become second nature for me to use other words to encourage and not praise while my husband still struggles. It takes a lot of brain work to get out of the good job habit! Thanks for writing such a thought provokign post!

  12. October 17, 2012

    Excellent post, and I couldn’t agree more about your assessment of self-esteem and what helps and what doesn’t.

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