What You THINK Is What You Get

You know your child pretty well, right? Most parents take it for granted that when it comes to their kid, they know who he is and what they can expect from him. But do you really? Are you sure? And when was the last time you updated your mental picture of him?

When someone asks what he’s like which words pop into your head right away? Write down the first four that come to mind. Are they primarily negative ones (selfish, a smart mouth, difficult, stubborn)? Or are they more on the positive side (funny, creative, hard-working, friendly)? Did any of them surprise you? Do you think they paint a fair picture?

If the words that surfaced were negative, you might want to pay attention because the qualities that you mentally connect to your child, whether you verbalize them or not, become one of the most important predictors of his behavior. Becoming aware of what they are can make all the difference between raising a child who reaches for the stars or one who seems to give up before he’s even tried.

The reason is simple: how you look at him dictates both how you treat him and the expectations you set for him. And whatever it is that you expect from him, be it good or bad, is likely to show up in his behavior. It’s a little scary, but you do have that kind of power.

This may sound a little wacky but there’s serious research to support it. In a landmark 1960’s study, Rosenthal et al. tested whether an elementary teacher’s expectations of her students’ academic abilities could actually affect their academic progress.

The kids were given an intelligence test at the beginning of the year. The teachers were told that the test would show their I.Q.’s and which of them would most likely make rapid, extraordinary progress in their schoolwork that year – regardless of how they had performed in the past.

The teachers were then given the names of the students who, the researchers said, had scored exceptionally high. But this was not true – these students had really been randomly picked from the class list.

At the end of the school year, the students were tested again. The ones who had been (falsely) identified as very bright at the beginning of the year  scored, on average, more than 12 I.Q. points higher than the rest of the class. In the lower grades, the results were even more dramatic – almost half of the “smart” first and second graders scored at least 20 points higher!

Pretty crazy, isn’t it? Just imagine how those results might translate to your kid. If you tend to think of him as uncooperative, for example, you will treat him in a particular way. In a sense, you will be training him to be uncooperative.

But what if you changed the way you thought of him? What if you reframed “uncooperative” to “strong-willed”; or “bossy” to “assertive”? It changes everything doesn’t it? The results of the Rosenthal study show that your expectations can go both ways and be either beneficial or detrimental.

That’s not to say that you just look the other way when your daughter is acting-out and being bossy. You don’t mentally tell yourself, “Oh, hmmm. I see that my daughter is bossing all the other kids around and has one of them in tears because she won’t play nicely unless she gets her way. What an assertive child I have. I’m so proud.”

Obviously not. She needs to know that her behavior is hurting others – that it is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. But it’s not the assertiveness per se that you want to get rid of, it’s the hurtful, self-sabotaging way that it is being expressed. She needs to learn how to use her hidden strengths (call them potential leadership abilities, assertiveness or whatever) to make a positive difference. It’s your expectation of what she is capable of that’s going to do the trick.

Another thing to pay attention to is how you talk to your kids about their behavior. Statements like: “You’re being rude, as usual“, “Stop the constant whining”, or “This room is a mess. You are such a slob” all communicate that you see these behaviors as permanent traits. If those comments were changed to: “You’re being rude right now. I don’t like it and I expect better of you.” “You have been whining a lot lately, what’s going on?”, “This room is a mess. I know you can do better than this and I expect you to” then you are communicating a very different message.

You are pointing out unacceptable behaviors but consciously, without judgement, and with the expectation that they can change – rather than unconsciously, out of habit, and with an air of resignation. And over time, the results of this approach will speak for themselves.

Something to think about, no?


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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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