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When Positive Words Negatively Affect Students

I’ve watched the influence of the words of leaders, teachers and parents for years now. Far too often, when we speak we’re only thinking about how we feel at the moment or what we’re thinking in that moment—not how those words will affect our kids. It isn’t until later that we recognize what those words have done to the mindset of our listeners. My friend, Andy Stanley, says, “a leader’s words weigh a thousand pounds.”

A few months ago, I said something sharply to a colleague. My words were direct and cutting. I was dissatisfied with how things had turned out in a particular situation, and I leveled my judgment quickly and impulsively. A week later, my colleague and I discussed what I’d said, and I discovered how negatively it had affected him. I vowed to be more careful with my words, especially when I’m exhausted.

Today, I’d like to propose a paradoxical question about our words.

Can Positive Words Have a Negative Effect?

While we all know our negative words can have a damaging effect on students, how about positive ones? Could there be any adverse and unintended outcomes when we speak seemingly affirming words to kids? If so, how in the world do we undo those negative consequences?

For about thirty years, I have heard parents and educators use affirmation liberally with students, hoping it would heighten their confidence and even their self-esteem. We said things like:

  • You’re special.
  • You are a smart kid.
  • You are beautiful.
  • Awesome job!

All of these phrases, while they appear completely positive, have had an adversarial effect on kids. When spoken consistently, students can draw the wrong conclusions and can begin sabotaging their own growth.

What Has Happened to Today’s Students? 

Let me offer the findings of focus groups where students who’ve been told such things were asked about their conclusions and resulting conduct:

  • Students who’ve consistently been told, “You’re special” from a very young age can often feel entitled to special perks or advantages as a result.
  • Students who’ve been consistently told, “You’re smart” from a very young age can conclude, “If I’m so smart, I shouldn’t have to try so hard.
  • Students who’ve been consistently told, “You’re beautiful!” from a very young age can often wonder why all the boys aren’t asking them out for a date.
  • Students who’ve been constantly told, “Awesome job!” will often find it difficult to manage constructive criticism or hard feedback.

Choosing Our Words Carefully 

So, how do we navigate these scenarios, once we’ve created them? Let me suggest some alternative ideas that enable caring adults to create positive outcomes:

1. Instead of “you’re special,” what if we said: “You’ve got unique gifts that could be very useful when you see the big picture. You can play an important role on a team.

2. Instead of saying, “You’re smart.” What if we said: “I love how hard you worked on that problem. That strategy and work ethic will be useful on a job one day.”

3. Instead of “You’re beautiful.” Why not say: “Do you know what’s most attractive about you? It’s your empathy for others; the way you care for them. It’s beautiful.”

4. Instead of always saying, “Awesome job.” Why not limit the word “awesome” for times they’re actually awesome. Then, when it’s time to offer hard feedback, say:

“I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you and I know you can reach them.”

 A Growth Mindset

When we change our words to affirm variables that are in our student’s control, we move them from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset,” according to psychologist Carol Dweck. This requires us to praise effort instead of smarts; qualities instead of outward beauty; value and uniqueness instead of superiority; and expressing belief in them instead of using hyperbole in our praise.

I just bumped into a former college student I had mentored years ago. He’s now fifty- one years old. He thanked me for my influence on him, but what I loved most was his comment about a specific memory. He said, “You always encouraged me in the areas I could change. That made me want to get better.”

That made my day. And—it made me want to get better.

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When Positive Words Negatively Affect Students