pygmalionSelf-Care Sundays

For the next eight months, I’ll continue the MAPS theme from my Write 31 Days Challenge. I strongly feel that in our self-indulgent culture, we often lose sight of the difference between nurturing ourselves and indulging ourselves. Occasional indulgence won’t hurt anyone, but a steady diet of indulgence that overlooks actual self-care can leave us feeling empty and confused.

The acronym MAPS stands for Mental, Academic/Artistic, Physical and Spiritual—the four areas of our lives that we need to nurture in order to feel whole.

We lose sight of the difference between nurturing ourselves and indulging ourselves. #selfcare #IMM #wholeness Click To Tweet

This Sunday’s theme? Mental Wholeness. And it’s all about how we interact with our children. Because raising kids can put a real strain on our mental wholeness. It can also have life-long consequences for our children.

What Happens When We Don’t Speak Well of Our Children

I stood in line, waiting to board the plane. After two gate changes and mechanical malfunctions, I yearned to sink into my cramped seat and relax. I hoped against hope that the loud lady in line in front of me had a seat at the opposite end of the airplane. I couldn’t help but overhear her voice-and cringe at the words pouring out of her mouth.

“My kids are such little s**ts!” she exclaimed to her traveling companion, another younger lady.

“Mine, too,” the companion said. “They’re so picky in what they eat I end up cooking three different meals every night-one for the girl, one for the boy, and one for my husband and I.”

“It’s just easier to not be home,” Loud Lady exclaimed. “The little brats never pick up after themselves and they fight all the time.” The tirade continued as she enumerated all of her children’s faults. It seems as if they got in trouble at home and at school and had jumped on the fast track to delinquency.

I heaved a sigh of gratefulness when the gate agent announced that the passengers could now board. Finally! As I made my way to my seat, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those women—and their hapless children.

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Kid

My kids weren’t perfect, but my husband and I, as educators, had both heard of the Pygmalion Effect and made a pact to always speak well of our children. Don’t get me wrong, when our children misbehaved, we spoke—but always to them, and in private as often as possible.

Psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen first wrote about The Pygmalion Effect in 1968 when they published their findings after studying an elementary school for a year. They set up their experiment by lying to a few teachers and telling them that their incoming class of students had been specially selected because a new Harvard intelligence test had predicted that these students would bloom intellectually within the next year.

pygmalionIn reality, the students had all taken a regular IQ test and the researchers selected them at random for the study. Surprisingly, each student in the ‘about to bloom’ group scored higher on the standard IQ test at the end of the year. In addition, they got good grades and posed few behavior problems for their teachers.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that positive expectations (teachers thought they had a class of brilliant students) resulted in positive outcomes. Conversely, negative expectations result in negative outcomes.

Our thoughts about a person—including our children—dictate our behavior towards that person, which in turn has a subsequent effect on how that person acts and reacts, thus further fueling our positive (or negative) interactions.

In other words, Rosenthal and Jacobsen proved that the adage first attributed to Henry Ford in 1947—Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right—to work both ways.

The Pygmalion Effect and Nonverbal Parenting Skills

Of course, once the researchers admitted to lying about student intelligence, no one has successfully replicated the exact results of their study. Rosenthal and other researchers have continued to study the Pygmalion Effect, searching for the key as to why expectations influenced outcomes. In the 1980s Rosenthal published a study that identified four key nonverbal elements that subtly influence behavior: climate, input, output, and feedback.pygmalion

While Rosenthal specifically studied teachers and classrooms, it stands to reason that those same four nonverbal elements affect our children as well. Here are how the four elements relate to our parenting:

1. Climate identifies the general attitude. Do we act in a warm and friendly way towards our children?

2. Input identifies the amount of time we spend with our child. Do we spend quality time and energy in interacting with our children?

3. Output identifies the expectations we have for our children. Do we expect them to give good answers, have intelligent conversations with us, and be able to problem-solve?

4. Feedback identifies the kind of feedback we give our children. Do we speak harshly or disparagingly when they make poor choices, or do we encourage them to explain their reasoning and help them find better alternatives?

The Pygmalion Effect and Verbal Interactions

Don’t get me wrong. Pedro and I had plenty of discussions about our kids’ behavior behind closed doors. When we saw a trait or pattern that concerned us, we brainstormed ways of dealing with the problem. We knew we didn’t have perfect children—but we also knew they didn’t have perfect parents.

We knew we didn't have perfect children--but we also knew they didn't have perfect parents. #parenting Click To Tweet

Our rules about verbal interactions looked something like this:

1. Never make excuses for our kids. Telling a stranger, “She’s shy,” turns into a crutch and self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we would coach our kids on how to interact appropriately with others.

2. Praise the product, encourage the child. We garnered this one from a talk by Barbara Coloroso (who has some excellent books on teaching and parenting). This looks like honest praise. When your youngster shows you a paper full of stick figures, don’t automatically say, “Oh! That’s beautiful! You’re such a good artist!” Kids know when someone is shining them on. Have a conversation about the picture. Ask them what each thing represents. When they finish, say, “I can see how much work you’ve put into this picture! Thank you for sharing it with me. I can’t wait to see what you draw next.” When our girls were young, we encouraged their efforts by buying their books and pieces of artwork (fortunately, they never charged much).

3. Expect your children to be each other’s best friend. Before our girls started school, I found a beautiful book by Dr. John Trent called Spider Sisters. We read it to them often and had the expectation that they would stick up for each other, play well with each other, and have a ready-made friend for life. It worked.

4. When we messed up, ask for a do-over. I started using this one when our girls entered their teen years and started boundary pushing. My short temper often dug a hole for me that I didn’t want to stay in. I would take a deep breath, say a quick prayer, and ask if we could replay the scene. At first, they thought I’d lost my mind. But replaying the scene with the intention of making it turn out well always changed the outcome.

Speaking Well Isn’t Just Bragging

Don’t confuse speaking well about your children with bragging about your children. Speaking (and thinking) well of your children involves a life-long intentional attitude that helps your child develop to the greatest of his or her potential. Bragging just makes other people uncomfortable.

Of course, human nature loves to show off and brag, so I confess to bragging on occasion (hopefully, I don’t do it too often!). I like to share the good news about my kids’ accomplishments on Facebook. They have both overcome obstacles that have shaped them into the caring, intelligent, creative, compassionate, witty, resourceful, beautiful young women that they are today. I greatly admire both of them.


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  1. I vaguely remember hearing about that study, Anita. And it really illustrates the power of persuasion, not to mention, the power of our influence, as parents, on our children. I wish that I had been better at affirming my boys when they were growing up, but I, like you, tried to always avoid talking negatively about them in public. It’s sad that the woman you heard gripping about her kids didn’t see the need to avoid this as well. Thanks for your insight, my friend! I love this post and have shared on Twitter and Pinterest!
    Beth recently posted…Comment on 6 Motivators for Improving Your Love Language Deficit by 5 Verses to Pray that will Help You Win the Spiritual Battle – Counting My BlessingsMy Profile

  2. Dear Anita, thank you for this great post! Some of these things I figured out on my own, or learned in college courses when our kids were in elementary school. But you’ve put it all together in a way that makes sense. How powerful this would be taped to the door of our friges to help all of us raise up a generation of balanced, confident, and competent children. Thanks and blessings!

  3. This is wise for us all, Anita, as parents, grandparents, and mentors. I want to speak well, and encouragingly, to my family and others. Sharing this as it is so important for us all to remember. Blessings!
    Joanne Viola recently posted…His PlansMy Profile

  4. My children are adults and I am learning to gauge my responses carefully; but, always, always remind them my love is unwavering. That’s the hardest part of parenting adult children. You sens their need for affirmation, support, advice. They don’t ask and that intuition nags at you and yet, you cant force yourself into their decisions. Just have to respond when they ask. Even harder is wondering if they are okay and not seeing their faces to confirm that they are. Prayer and giving them to God who loves them way more than I can ever is a daily thing.

  5. I have never heard of the Pygmalion theory as such, but I did learn that children usually act the way you expect them to. In other words, if we’re always putting them down or nagging them and being negative it will have a negative affect. But if we speak positive words, encouraging them to keep on trying even after a failure, we give them more confidence and they do seem to live up to more positive expectations. So I guess without realizing it I was somehow familiar with that theory. 🙂

  6. Anita, this is so true. Great wisdom here. I always cringe when I hear parent speaking ill of their children. Don’t they know they are giving everyone a bad impression of their children, but also teaching their children to speak ill of them and others. Great tips. I know when I start finding fault with the little things my child does, the good has to really jump out for me to notice. It is best for them and me not to focus on those things. And when I remember, I try to give the child first a compliment, before getting on them for the negative. Not only do they take it better, but I don’t get caught focusing on more of their faults.
    Theresa Boedeker recently posted…Failing with GraceMy Profile

  7. I can definitely tell a difference in my girls’ behavior when I am in a good mood versus a bad one. Of course, both being tweens, their mood changes often as it is. Praising them and encouraging usually come easy to me, but I can always use help!

  8. Speaking well of our kids is akin to speaking blessings over them. So often parents speak curses over them without even realizing it. Words are so important. xo

  9. Anita, I love this. — And, I feel sad for those moms too. No one ever said parenting was easy, but it’s so rewarding when we see it through the eyes of thanksgiving. — Years ago when our babies were little, a friend of mine used to say “bad girl” to her daughter when she did something naughty. That always struck me as something I never wanted to say to my children. (She was and is a good mom, though. Don’t mean to put her down.) We always hoped our boys would be best friends, too. And, today, two of them are adults and the youngest is 16, and every one of them will stick up for the other. Thankful that they have each other, because one day we won’t be here for them, but they’ll be able to grow old together, I pray. — Lovely article, friend. Thank you.
    Brenda recently posted…HonestlyMy Profile

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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