Wednesday, September 16, 2015


 A recent emphasis in parent education and child development studies—based on both research and common sense—is the idea that raising a child with the encouragement of “You can do it” is more nurturing and more lasting than a diet of “You’re so smart.” (Or so “special.” I once heard a speaker remind a group of parents that a child who grows up hearing how special he is may discover—upon beginning his first adult job—that he and his parents are the only people who share this view.)

This is another reminder of the power of words and word choices. Perhaps, even more than for a parent, it is spontaneously intuitive for a grandparent to want to blurt out, “You’re so smart!” to the grandson or –daughter who is the apple of his eye. Yet I am making the verbal shift from “You’re so smart,” to, “Hey! You figured it out!” as I interact with my (very brilliant) grandkids. I am convinced—by the research and the common sense—that there’s an important distinction in the developmental implications of those two phrases. And the second is no less loving than the first. (I suppose that a similar critique could be made of a childhood where one constantly hears, “You’re so beautiful!”)

In a parallel vein, the late child psychologist Haim Ginott emphasized the different messages conveyed (when complimenting a child's drawing, for example) by, on the one hand, saying, “You are a great artist!” or, on the other, “I like that drawing.” In the first instance, an adult has laid upon the child a burden (“great artist”) that she may or may not want to accept. (And, again, I’m thinking here of childhood-long patterns of communication.) In the second, she knows—somewhat objectively—how a grownup feels about her drawing, which perhaps has the effect of being more “encouraging” than having to live up to an imposed label of being an artist.

And it is a word choice. The words we use are not just a matter of dry verbiage; they are the building blocks of the emotional environment in which relationships thrive or wither. (As someone has said, “Remember—it is you who makes the weather.”) I’ve discovered that one can even catch oneself and make a word-choice shift in mid-sentence: “You’re so sm…. Hey! You figured it out!”

(Of course there are variations on “You can do it:” “You figured it out;” “Let’s sit down and see if we can figure this out;” “Let’s try again;” “This is a tough one, but I think you’re on the right track;” “You used your thinker!”)

I had the practical veracity of this concept demonstrated for me, personally, just yesterday: My handyman skills are just slightly beyond knowing which end of the hammer to hold. This is why my favorite tool is my iPhone, with which I take a photo of the project at hand so I can text it to my brother-in-law, Jeff, with my question. In this case, I was trying to make a simple repair to the tailgate of my utility trailer. Simple, but I ran into a bit of a poser, so off went the photo/text to Jeff. Then, just after I sent it, that cartoon light bulb came on over my head: an insight that enabled me to complete the repair. Before he could respond, I sent Jeff a follow-up text, “I figgered it out!”

I haven’t heard back from Jeff yet, but I know what he’ll say. Dearly though he loves me, he won’t say, “You are a brilliant mechanic;”  he won’t say, “It’s because you’re so smart.” He’ll say, “Good for you; you figured it out!” I could receive no greater encouragement—or higher praise.
BONUS for parents: Doing some reading for this post, I came across this very practical article about some everyday ways to apply the principles of "You can do it."

NOTE: I think of this blog as part of a conversation. I realize that the "Comment" section of this site is unwieldy. For the time being, the only alternative is to share your responses to this essay on Facebook, either to my page, or as a private message. I value your part of the conversation.

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