Posted by: Sara Carbone on: March 6, 2012
There are certain words and phrases that come with baggage. Our culture uses them over and over again in ways that mean they’re loaded with negative connotations. I tend to avoid them when working with children.
This may seem like silly semantics, but I like using language that aims to keep academic work clear of judgment and anxiety. Linguist Deborah Tannen writes that even a small comment, while “annoying coming from anyone, [is] especially hurtful when it comes from the person whose opinion counts most—your mother.” She observes that this can lead kids to begin to question their own abilities and worth.
Language to try to avoid:
Hard - Tends to bring up comparisons with other kids who find things easier. And the way we use the word these days often refers to something that will always be that way. It conjures images of something beyond him, something that points to his not being capable. I try “tricky” or “a tougher one” or even “hairy.”
Potential - She hears this word all the time. It’s dragged out by everyone from her homeroom teacher and soccer coach to her best friend’s dad. Trust me, she’s pretty numb to the word by now, so it doesn’t really work much as a motivator. Potential brings all sorts of connotations around pressure, fear of dissapointing people (like you) and the notion that she is thoughtlessly squandering something. Former student Robbie adds, “Saying that I’m not living up to my potential, what is that? How do you judge what my potential is? It’s vague and just leaves me feeling like I’m not good enough. There is no way to judge it, so just throwing out a phrase like that drives me crazy.”
Bad Grade – This has a weighty negativity to it – think of the belittling phrases “bad boy” and “bad girl.” And grades are a source of stress for kids that can feel awfully arbitrary. So I try to take the sting out of them by opting for something like “lower grade than what you wanted” or “not what you were aiming for.” When looking at a report card I’ll ask, “Anything surprise you?” or “How do you feel about the science grade?” Helps get the conversation started in a way that doesn’t assume anything about how she feels. Once you get a read on things for her, it’s easier to ask questions and discuss how she can adjust her approach.
Weakness – The word is ammo for schoolyard bullies and tyrants the world over. To be weak in our culture means someone who can’t do for himself, someone who has failed in a fundamental way. Your kid knows this. Opt for “something that is not as easy” or “more challenging skill.”
Lazy – Avoid this. Even if she really is. Especially if she really is. Negative labels, even used in passing, hurt and stay with a kid – particularly sensitive teens. Robbie reports, “When a teacher or my parents called me lazy, it really pissed me off. If I hear that I’m lazy, then I think ‘Fine, I’m just lazy, I don’t care.’” Don’t give them self-fulfilling fodder.
Avoiding these phrases can make it easier to meet, as education expert Alfie Kohn says, the “one basic need all children have…to be loved unconditionally, to know that they will be accepted even if they screw up or fall short.”
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