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Updated: Aug 29, 2023

3 PART SERIES: Part 1, Part 2

Part 3: AVOID person, looks or talent-based praise.

“Do you think I’m fat?”

Not something you might hear a toddler say right? But as young as age 8 or 9, kids – girls being especially at risk, start to compare their bodies to other girls. That’s just one way we start to become perfectionists as children.

Acquiring perfectionist tendencies is a result of the CORE belief pattern that says “I am not enough.”

I had been called ‘fatty’ by some family members for a large part of my childhood years. When I asked them to stop, they didn’t, they just laughed and told me I was too sensitive. I was actually within a healthy weight and no one today would say I was an overweight child… but I started to believe deep down, I was ‘too fat’ and ‘too sensitive’ (aka not good enough.)

But when I hit puberty, my body started changing of course, and one day when I was twelve years old, I was suddenly ‘complimented’ by a female member of my extended family who said “Oh wow Ashley. You’re so skinny now. You’ve lost so much weight. You look great.”

I was 12 years old. I was floored. My mind jumped with excitement.

I had never been called ‘skinny’ before! Throughout my formative years I was told I was fat.

So, what happened?

The ‘fatty’ comments I got before were constantly telling me that I was “not good enough,” so I glommed on to this new-found approval of being physically acceptable. And so, began my infatuation with wanting to be skinny so I could retain the approval I was getting…

Where did this land me?

In my desperate attempts to retain this approval I developed severe eating disorders. I battled with depression as the core belief that I was not ‘good enough’ got bigger in my mind; my self-image became very distorted.

It’s crucial to note that kids very much want approval from adults around them.

When approval is received from our external environment, it can create a desire for more of the same – leading to perfectionist tendencies because it desires further approval. Not only is this an issue, it can be downright harmful or even life-threatening in some cases, especially as social media exacerbates the challenges for young people.

Another thing to note is that skills developed and accomplishments achieved in life, don’t happen overnight but rather, with consistent effort over time. This contrasts sharply with the word “talent” which is often referred to as a something natural that didn’t take much skill to acquire.

For example, indicating a child is a talented pianist invites the idea that she’s a natural at it. Whereas if the same child was struggling with piano, she won’t be told she’s talented. But in reality, the child did not come out of the womb knowing how to play piano. She needed to attend lessons, go through coaching and participate in recitals for her to have acquired the skills and confidence to play the piano well.

When we focus on talent only, we dismiss the work and effort that the child puts into the skill-formation.

Let’s examine this further.

We say to the child (and the child also hears similar kinds of praise throughout her daily life): “Wow, you’re so awesome. You played the piano so well. You’re so talented.”

If this child develops the affinity for the praise she receives for her talent, one day when she messes up in a piano practice or recital and doesn’t get the approval of adults around her, it can cause damage to her self-esteem; this is the same child that then goes into her room later and reprimands herself for “not getting it right” or being a failure.

One occurrence isn’t the issue; it’s when this type of praise is commonplace in her life at home, the grandparent’s home, school and in extra-curriculars. If she is consistently being evaluated based on her performance and talent, when mistakes do arise, she becomes the child who is excessively hard on herself.

Kids seek approval from adults – HECK – all humans seek approval. And statistics show that for kids, most of this approval is not coming from the inside; it’s external, which is troublesome.

Now, let’s say a child is complimented based on her efforts and appreciated for it.

For example, if she performs well at a recital, we might say “Wow! I felt so happy listening to you play. I think you must have worked hard on that piece, am I right? I really appreciate your piano-playing skills.”

There are SO MANY reasons why the second statement, what I call an Empowerment Phrase, is so powerful.

1. You indicate your delight with the “Wow.”

2. You share your feelings - “happy”.

3. You share your thoughts about her effort and acknowledge the effort it took.

4. You shared appreciation for the child’s skills.

5. The whole communication comes from a place of ‘ownership’ – it comes from a place of “I” not “you.”

Person-Praise on the other hand becomes completely about the child’s qualities: “You are so talented.” “You played so fantastic.” “You are …”

Notice each sentence starts with “You.” The child ends up taking responsibility for your compliments… including when the compliments stop…

This can be shifted easily to “I thought/felt/experienced” which comes from a place of “I” and ownership. But because it’s easy to develop the desire for external validation even when we say how we “like something”, we must also empower our kids with concrete skills, tools and strategies that teach them about their own magnificent selves despite who likes it or not! I get to do this with kids in my coaching programs.

Now why am I bothering to go into so much detail with you?

Because WE ALL HAVE BASIC CORE NEEDS. And for Kids, their needs carry great weight because they haven’t formed a full understanding of their personal identity until they are in their mid-twenties and have a fully developed brain.

Some of the core needs that are addressed in the empowerment phrase I mentioned above are:

-Need for Appreciation

-Need for Acceptance

-Need to be seen, heard and felt (attuned attention)

-Need for Honesty

-Need for Respect

In the same way where we grew up in a world of ‘good boy’ and ‘bad boy’ terminology, we now know the detriment this causes young minds. In fact, labeling a person as ‘something’ can lower self-esteem – even if the label is perceived as good – like a compliment. If a ‘good boy’ makes a mistake one day, and is suddenly called a ‘bad boy’, that can shatter his perception of himself.

If we say to a girl for a large period of her life “You are so pretty. Gosh, you’re so pretty,” she can start to base her worth on the approval or validation of her appearance. One day if she isn’t complimented on her looks, she may start to wonder why, and start to question her ‘enough-ness’ (her self-worth).

Social media feeds external validation. When this same girl posts a picture of herself all done up as a teen, and for whatever reason, doesn’t get as many ‘likes’ as she’s used to, she may feel negatively about herself. External validation has no end-point; if we live off of it, we find ourselves in a bottomless pit wondering how to love ourselves… and it shows up in our adulthood.

I strongly believe that kids need to know they are beautiful from the inside out, and in fact, knowing our own beauty is a CORE NEED.

What if we shift how we share our admiration of their external beauty?

“Wow, I love your hair. Where did you learn to do it like that?”

For younger kids, it might sound like “I feel happy when I see your bouncy curly hair! How do you feel about your hair?”

It’s likely that a child now has the opportunity to say “I love my hair” which warms your heart, and empowers her with positive self-talk. Or it gives the child a chance to voice her disdain with her hair such as “I don’t like it. It’s too frizzy.” In this case, a conscious parent has the opportunity to help her find the beauty of her hair and teach a skill called Positive Self-Talk.

“Communication has been taught so poorly in our communities and upbringing that we are having to collectively re-learn it.” – Georgia Morley, Somatic Counselor

Words matter. How we say it matters. As a society, it’s about time we reconstruct our methods of healthy and supportive communication.

Children will rely on adults to help them construct their internal views of themselves. If the views they see are constructed based on ‘who they are’ or their talent as a condition of their success or achievement, they may not want to do certain things out of fear of failure, or fear of disappointing others or themselves. This is evident in children who tend to stay in their comfort zone.

Sharing your thoughts of appreciation with children is fantastic for building self-esteem and self-worth.

“I really appreciate the time and effort you put into getting dressed for the wedding. I hope you feel great in that dress!”

“I really appreciated your effort in soccer practice today.”

The cool thing about appreciation based praise is that your kids will learn from you and one day turn around and say “Mom (or Dad), I really appreciate the time and effort you put into making dinner tonight.”

So cool right?!

If you’d like for your child to learn more about self-esteem and self-confidence, feel free to reach out:

With Confidence,

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