Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Child They’re a Natural

father and son

I love listening to self-help type of audio books — yes, listening, because, let’s be honest, there isn’t much time to sit and read during motherhood. I am currently listening to an audio book titled Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. The book poses a theory that people, including children, are more likely to feel better about themselves and their accomplishments when their hard work is acknowledged versus when they are seen as being a natural at something.

In his book, Duhigg explains, “In general, young kids think that intelligence is an innate capacity, so telling young people they are smart reinforces their belief that success and failure is based on factors outside of their control.” In addition, Duhigg also states that “complimenting students for hard work reinforces their belief that they have control over themselves and their surroundings.” These simple, yet loaded statements, put parenting in perspective for me.

How many of us moms regularly tell our children that they are the most magnificent beings we’ve ever encountered? I’ll be the first to say that I am guilty of this. I know that I try and make it a point to tell my son that he is very intelligent, strong, funny or simply that he is a natural at everything he does on a daily basis. I tell him these things thinking I am affirming him and building his confidence. However, the theory I heard in Duhigg’s book made me reconsider the way I compliment my son. Although I don’t believe that building my children up with endless compliments is a bad thing, I now believe that there are better words to use in building my children. This is in part thanks to Duhigg.

One of the quotes in Duhigg’s book that made the most sense to me was an explanation by a Marine Corps boot camp trainer. The boot camp trainer explained, “We never tell anyone they’re a natural-born leader. ‘Natural-born’ means it’s outside your control … Instead, we teach them that leadership is learned. It’s the product of effort.”

This is where it clicked for me. This boot camp trainer helped me understand the importance of teaching my children that hard work is something we decide to do; that we have the control of making our own choices. The trainer’s words made me realize the importance of helping my children feel like their hard work is not done in vain — this is why my son is no longer a natural at things. I now make sure to acknowledge his hard work instead of his “natural” abilities.

Duhigg’s theory resonated with me because I strive to teach my children to be self-motivated, to want to practice what they are good at as well as what they are not good at, and to want to make their own decisions instead of always looking to me to make them for them. I now feel more equipped with the correct words to help my children feel acknowledged, seen, affirmed, and to assist them in practicing their own strong voice.

How do you help build your children’s confidence? —Jasmin

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2 Comments

  1. I love this piece of advice (you’re a natural at advice giving! ha) – so true that we often tell our children they are wonderful and maybe forget to reward them for the effort rather than the result.

  2. Amy Stainthorpe — You’re words affirm my heart. Thank you for your kindness! I write about these things to remind myself about my parenting plan. At times, it is easy to forget the importance of being conscious while raising children. It is comments like yours that motivate me to keep notating my advice for myself and sharing it.