Correcting behavior:

The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes

© 2011 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Sometimes children disappoint us.

They make mistakes, misbehave, or simply fail to meet our standards.

How to handle these disappointments?

You might be candid and tell kids how you feel.

"I’m disappointed in you."

But experiments suggest that this is not the best approach.

The trouble is that personal criticism can be interpreted as a judgment about an individual’s innate limitations.

When a child hears statements like “you’re so lazy," or “I’m disappointed in you," he may conclude that he is intrinsically inferior. Some people have the right stuff, but he’s not one of them. So he feels helpless, and doesn’t make any attempt to learn from his mistakes or improve himself.

Referencing the behavior is more helpful. Instead of “you’re so lazy," you say “you are acting lazy."

And the best way to get results? Change behavior? Encourage kids to do better?

I’m not sure, but an intriguing experiment suggests an answer. Maybe we can motivate kids by asking them to think up their own solutions.

“Can you think of a better way to do it?"

In some situations, these might be the magic words.

Here’s the evidence.

Testing the effects of criticism on kindergarteners

Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck (1999) presented 67 kindergarteners with some role-playing scenarios. Each scenario was a story of failure and feedback from a teacher, and featured the listener as protagonist.

Here is an example.

One day you are playing with Legos. The teacher, Mrs. Billington, comes over and says, "Will you make me a beautiful house with those Legos?"

You say, "OK, Mrs. Billington." So you work really hard and try to build a good house for the teacher. You put the Legos together to make four walls and then you add a roof.

You really want to make the teacher a nice house, but you look down at the house you built, and you think to yourself, "Uh-oh, I forgot to put any windows on the house," but you want to give it to Mrs. Billington, so you say, "Teacher, I made a house for you!" The teacher looks at the house you built and says, "That house has no windows."

The story ended in one of four ways.

• In the control condition, there was no further action. The teacher noted the lack of windows and made no further comment.

• In the Person Criticism condition, the story ended with the teacher’s disapproval. She made several criticisms and concluded by saying “I’m disappointed in you."

• In the Outcome Criticism condition, the teacher’s criticism focused on the outcome, not the child. “That’s not the right way to do it."

• In the Process Criticism condition, the teacher simply noted the mistake (“The blocks are all crooked and in one big mess") and then invited the child to think about alternatives: “Maybe you could think of another way to do it."

When the story was over, interviewers asked kids a series of questions, like:

• How did the story make you feel?

• Did the story make you feel like a good girl or not a good girl?

• Did the story make you feel smart or not smart?

The kids were also tested on their persistence. Interviewers asked kids to think of their own sequel to the scenario. What would the child in the story do next?

And kids were asked "would you like to do the Lego house again or do something else instead?"

How kids responded to different kinds of feedback

The results were pretty clear.

Children who’d received person criticism (“I’m disappointed in you") were more likely to think they weren’t good at the skill featured in the scenario.

They felt worse about themselves, and they were more likely to give up without fixing the problem.

The better approaches?

Both outcome feedback (“That’s not the right way to do it") and process feedback (“Maybe you could think of another way to do it") were linked with more persistence.  

And the kids who’d received process feedback had the most optimism about their abilities. Compared to the kids in the person criticism group, they were less likely to feel unskilled.

So is shaming children always a bad idea?

The experiments by Kamins and Dweck suggest that the words “I’m disappointed in you" aren’t helpful in the context of a classroom. But the scenarios they tested weren’t about moral transgressions. They didn’t concern children being disrespectful or selfish or deliberately destructive.

In such cases, might the words “I’m disappointed in you" have beneficial effects? When someone says he is disappointed in us, doesn’t that make us feel guilty? Doesn’t it make us want to change our ways?

Again, I’m not sure. But there are reasons to be cautious.

Psychologists make a distinction between feelings of guilt and feelings of shame. Feelings of guilt are linked with a desire to make amends. Feelings of shame tend to make people angry—and not necessarily repentant. In fact, people who feel shamed may be less likely to take responsibility for their transgressions (Tangney et al 1992).

So we might risk some very undesirable side effects when we shame children.

Should we explain that their misdeeds are unacceptable? Yes. Should we ask kids to consider the feelings of their victims? Sure. Empathy is an important component of moral development. 

But we should be aware that critical feedback can backfire. Humiliation can lead to rage (Tangney et al 1992), and the work of Kamins and Dweck suggests that personal criticism might lead kids to feel helpless. I’m just a bad person. I can’t help it.

By contrast, asking kids to think of solutions--ways to make amends for their misdeeds--might be far more constructive.

And the question takes on a whole new cast when it comes to public shaming. It's one thing to discreetly inform a child you're unhappy with her behavior. Broadcasting her shortcomings to the world is another.

Studies of young elementary school students suggest that kids are more likely to reject peers if they perceive them to be in less supportive student-teacher relationships (Hughes et al 2001; Hughes and Kwok 2006, Hughes et al 2006). When students are singled out for being incompetent or badly behaved, they subsequently receive less social acceptance from other kids in the class (Hughes and Zhang 2007; McAuliffe et al 2009).

Needless to say, that's bad, and not only because it makes kids feel more socially isolated. Kids who feel rejected by peers become less motivated at school, which can lead to a downward spiral of lower achievement, increased behavior problems, and even more social rejection.

More reading

Criticism is only one way to make kids feel helpless about their failures.

Another way is to lavish kids with the wrong sort of praise. Research suggests that generic praise (“You’re so smart!") makes kids think that intelligence is an innate, fixed trait, and that achievement is determined by factors beyond the individual’s control. So when these kids fail, they are quick to give up.

We can help kids, then, by giving them the right sort of praise. When we praise kids for their effort--and for the specific strategies they use to solve problems--they are more likely to learn from their mistakes and persevere. For more information, see these evidence-based tips. 

And for a general discussion of the best approach to discipline, see this article about the authoritative parenting style.

References: Correcting behavior

Hughes JN, Cavell TA, and Willson V. 2001. Further support for the developmental significance of the quality of the teacher–student relationship. Journal of School Psychology 39:289–301.

Hughes JN and Kwok OM. 2006. Classroom engagement mediates the effect of teacher-student support on elementary students' peer acceptance: A prospective analysis. J Sch Psychol. 43(6):465-480.

Hughes JN, Zhang D, and Hill CR. 2006. Peer assessments of normative and individual teacher-student support predict social acceptance and engagement among low-achieving children. J Sch Psychol. 43(6):447-463.

Hughes JN and Zhang D. 2007. Effects of the structure of classmates' perceptions of peers' academic abilities on children's perceived cognitive competence, peer acceptance, and engagement. Contemp Educ Psychol. 32(3):400-419. Hughes JN, Zhang D.

Kamins M and Dweck C. 1999. Person versus process praise and criticism:Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 30(3): 835-847.

McAuliffe MD, Hubbard JA, Romano LJ. The role of teacher cognition and behavior in children's peer relations. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 37(5):665-77.

Tangney JP, Wagner P, Fletcher C, Gramzow R. 1992. Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 62(4):669-75.

Content last modified 9/13

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