How Our Words Shape Our Kids’ View of Themselves

The boy hugs mom's legs, playing hide and seek.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me” is a phrase that initially appeared in 1872 to teach kids that name-calling was harmless. It was one of the greatest lies ever told to kids. Words hurt. And the words we repeatedly hear can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

People tend to act in line with what they believe is expected of them. We tend to be clumsier when around people who think of us as clumsy. We have more to say around people who think we’re interesting. “Mean” kids are likely to continue acting mean when they’re persistently described as mean.

In other words, the labels used to describe us can lead us to believe that certain behavior is a fundamental part of our nature.

Overhearing someone say something not so nice about us affects us and has an impact on our relationship. Think about it. When is the last time you overheard someone say something nasty about you. How did it make you feel? People’s negative perceptions may not break our bones, but they sure hurt.

The same is true for kids. What we say to kids matters more than we think. It shapes their personality and shapes the relationships we develop with them, well beyond the childhood years.

Research suggests that labels can alter behavior. In one study, Rosenthal and Jacobson were able to show that kids whose teachers expected enhanced performance performed better than other kids. Approximately 20 percent of the students in an elementary school were chosen at random and presented to teachers as “intellectual bloomers.” All students were given the same IQ test at the beginning…

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