Monday, May 3, 2010

Labelling for good, not bad

If you're like me and scores of other Singaporean parents, we're always at our kids' throats when they do something wrong. "Why so many careless mistakes?" "How come so untidy?" "Why didn't you complete your homework?"

I don't know about you but even though I've probably read a thousand times that positive strokes work better than negative ones, barking comes instinctive to me. I suspect it's in my DNA.

It's easier to be encouraging to kids who are generally good, those who always do their work well and never give any trouble. In our household, this would be Lesley-Anne. She does well in school and even though there are subjects she struggles with, she works diligently at them. It's hard to get mad at a child with a dedicated work ethic.

Andre is different. His school work see-saws depending on whether he was particularly inspired at the time he was doing it. It sometimes takes several repetitions before can grasp a concept and he often forgets what he has learnt. When the going get tough, he loses interest, makes excuses or cries. It's much harder to maintain a positive attitude towards those kids who constantly don't conform, so it's no surprise that he tends to get the brunt of scoldings. Kenneth is even more impatient than I am, especially when he attempts to teach Andre and I often have to remind him that Andre not understanding his work is not a deliberate ploy to spite him.

There were periods last year when Andre seemed forlorn and subdued, almost lost. It felt like he was going through the daily motions aimlessly, getting into trouble or throwing tantrums without being able to explain why. It got to a point where I felt sorry for him - he was like a little lost sheep. I started making a conscious effort to praise him more, even for little things, and not be so quick to jump on his mistakes. I don't remember when it began but when I put him to bed at night, in addition to the usual hugs and kisses, I told him, "You're a good boy." It wasn't a conscious action on my part until a few weeks later, I suddenly noticed that it had become a ritual and I was telling him this every night. "You're a good boy."

Maybe subconsciously, I realised that Andre needed affirmation of his self-worth. You know, children who get into trouble a lot often think that they're bad children. When they are constantly admonished for their misdeeds, it's hard for them to distinguish between the act and the person. Many of them actually believe that they are not good and ironically, start acting out according to this perception of them.

This is the classic labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy effect where we act the way we are treated. If we are treated as if we are bad, stupid or whatever, we will act, and even become, this way. In a 1969 ground-breaking study by Rosenthal and Jacobson, all the children in an elementary class were given a test and the teachers were told that some of children were unusually clever (though they were actually average). At the end of the school year, the same class was tested and the children were who identified had improved their scores far more than other children. How did this happen? The teachers believed these kids were smarter and treated them as such. When treated as such, the kids started thinking they were smarter and actually BECAME smarter. Mind-boggling stuff.

A kid who's constantly told he's naughty continues to act out because he believes he has no choice, that's who he is. This also potentially leads to poorer self-image and an inner belief that he's less deserving of love or acceptance from his parents, society or God because he's inherently bad.

We need to be aware and change this. Never, never, never call your children "naughty", "bad", "petty", "lazy", etc. Correct the mistake but don't label the person. By doing so, we're actually sabotaging ourselves and reinforcing the behaviour.

This year, I find that Andre has become more sensible. He fusses less about doing his homework, he seems to have settled in better in school. Now when he gets a sub-par mark for spelling or ting xie, there's no need to scold him because he's visibly dissatisfied with his own result. Last week, he had so much homework that it overran into his play time but he told me he's not complaining because he knows the exams are coming. (Of course he had to advertise it to me lah, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless someone knows about it).

Maybe he's just maturing naturally but what's clear to me is that the positive strokes have motivated him significantly better than the scoldings. Maybe hearing that he's a good boy every night has in some small part, helped him realise that his scrapes and misdemeanors don't define who he is.

I've known all along that Andre's a good boy at heart. He just needed to believe it too.


Lilian said...

So sweet. He is a good boy and you're a wonderful mum.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

I have always loved your blog because you are so honest with your opinion. I myself have children with different personality - not too dissimilar to yours. One is diligent,finds school work generally not taxing and better behaved. The others may have to work harder at certain aspects of their school work or get into more trouble. Perhaps it is a gift to have such dissimilar kids - so that we can learn to have more empathy as human being :)

I particularly like today's blog because it really strikes a note in my own situation - where I do tend to "focus" on my more michievious kid, because I try to "teach" him the right thing to become a better person. However, perhaps along the way - I might have forgotten to tell him that he is a good boy. Maybe part of me is afraid that by giving the affirmation, he might not see the need to correct the wrong behaviour. After reading the blog - it serves as a reminder that at the end of the day, we might still need to give the positive affirmation to the child - so that he/she sees himself as a ultimately a good person, and eventually to behave as one.

Thanks Monica. Keep up the good work with the blog.


monlim said...

Lilian: Thanks, it's a constant process of learning, isn't it?

YL: I'm so encouraged to hear that my random musings help you! I truly believe God gave me (and you) different children so we can empathise better. If both my kids were like L-A, I'm sure it would have been easy for me to dismiss other parents' struggles and just attribute my "good fortune" to superior parenting skills :P

Most of us are so caught up with telling our kids what they do wrong that we forget to affirm them just for who they are. Your son sounds like a great kid too, keep telling him that!

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica

This is a great posting. I am in a same situation as you and now I am very encouraged to heap praises on my younger son. I guess as the "goody" daughter is so trouble-free, we feel that the younger son is a let-down and a troublemaker. We forget that he also aspires to be like the achieving sister but does not have the maturity or natural talent to be on par with her YET. I emphasize on YET as I said before, the boys "bloom" later. Hey they could well represent two different curves, one left skewed and the other right skewed. So yes, we have to constantly remind ourselves not to compare and be patient. They are all good boys. I think they actually secretly feel sad/upset with themselves and fell small for not matching up to the sister. We must have said in front of the poor boy how good/great the sister are. One parent said that the moment she stopped comparing - comparing her children with other children and comparing among her own children, suddenly the whole relationship between her and her children changed for the better. Well done to a meaningful article, Monica!


monlim said...

SL: I consciously don't compare my kids with others or between them because I grew up with it and know how destructive it is. But you're right in that when we praise the older sister as "smart" or "good", the younger one may perceive it to mean that he falls short in comparison, even if this was never said.

Side note, don't you find it interesting that it tends to be the boy, esp last born male, who poses more challenges? LOL!

Anonymous said...

Yes, very interesting indeed. We just have to make the best of what we are given. Thanks again for this enlightening article.


Hopeful said...

Dear Monica,

I stumbled upon your blog today while randomly googling for, of all things, GEP reading list. I too, have a dd in GEP, and have been nodding my head in agreement at your postings, because as a mom of 2 schoolgoing kids, I can really identify! :)


monlim said...

Hopeful: Thanks for reading!

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