How to compliment our children and students

I was always slim, with a healthy, lean body. So when I put on a whopping 25 pounds some years ago, all in a matter of 3 months, depression was the next inevitable step. The weight gain was a result of medication so, therefore, out of my control. I tried for very long to drop the weight, as I was no stranger to exercise. However, the effects of the medication were long-term.

What started to become obvious to me was how badly my self-esteem was shattered by my weight gain. My body image dictated my self- image and no matter how much or how often or how sincerely my loved ones told me how beautiful I looked, and how little weight they found I gained, it didn’t matter to me. When I looked in the mirror I was always astounded by what I no longer saw – the slim, pretty me.

Opting to solve this problem, I started researching causes and reasons for this connection between what I looked like and who I felt I was. My findings were overwhelming to me, as a woman, as an educator.

As a young child, I was always told how pretty I was. As a teenager I was always told how pretty, talented and slim I was. Even as a young adult, I was always complimented for my good looks, nice body and ability to dance. Boyfriends, their friends and families were always so impressed by how I looked. Academically, I did well in school and pursued all my academic goals conscientiously, and with success. However, academic achievements seem to have been expected, but what always stood out was how good looking I was.

It is, therefore, no surprise that my self- worth was more closely connected to how I looked, rather than who I was or what I accomplished. Luckily, these revelations led me to work on my self- image and body issues. I’ve only since lost a few pounds, quite a few inches but care less about it. I’ve come to like what I look like, even though it isn’t what I used to look like.

Further research led me to realize that our image of ourselves are so closely determined by the way in which we are complimented and validated as children, teenagers and even young adults.

When students do well on tests, we don’t hesitate to say how bright they are. Continually over time, the message that is sent, intentional or not, is that a high test score was the deciding factor to the child’s intelligence and that the end was more important than the means. It is again no surprise that teaching in an accelerated learning institution such as a prestige school, these students have heard for most of their lives how bright they are. Therefore, it explains the frustration we feel as teachers, when our students argue with us for a half of a mark, cry because of a 75% result in an exam and hate to answer questions in class for fear of being wrong. Their self-worth in the school environment is determined by the receiving of the highest marks and always being right. It reaches the point where they are willing to accept a half of a mark for an ambiguous display of pseudo intelligence, once it meant a higher mark. Comprehension and analysis of the work is of less importance, once the success of a high mark is achieved. The success of understanding the curriculum is of wavering necessity.
How do we resolve this disconnect between wanting to encourage our children and students to achieve, wanting to compliment them, without sending the wrong message? The answer is quite simple. It lies in HOW we compliment them.

When a 7 year old scores high or even total in a math or science test, we need to stop and ask ourselves, WHAT do we want to compliment? If we say that we want to compliment their intelligence, then we must realize that as students, their intelligence has not yet developed or has been determined. Intelligence, as defined on Wikipedia, is an ongoing process that can be “defined in many different ways including, but not limited to, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, reasoning, learning, having emotional knowledge, retaining, planning, and problem solving”. None of these can be fully developed in a 7 year old, or even in a 57 year old. So we must re-visit WHAT we want to compliment. Already knowing the effects of complimenting a child’s intelligence, we must next consider complimenting something else – their effort. We always try to tell our students that hard work results in good results but it isn’t enough to say it, even repeatedly. We must show them. By making an unbreakable connection between their study habits, work ethic and effort to their result, we don’t just say that hard work results in success, we show them, we prove it, or rather, they prove it.

Similarly, if their result in a test isn’t as high as they would like, a connection should be made via questions about how well they prepared for the exam compared to last time when they did better. Consequently, discussions should occur about the topics tested and that it is normal for all of us to understand some themes better than others, none of which is a reflection on out intelligence.

Likewise, when we compliment our young girls of varying ages about their good looks, we must differentiate between them looking pretty on a particular occasion and being pretty. We must try to not let good looks stand independently, as a sole defining factor. Rather, remind them of an achievement they made in another aspect of their life. This, however, can only be made if a child is exposed to more than just school – this way their sporting ability can also be highlighted, their achievement in a test, their ballet recital. Complimenting a child holistically, shows them their overall worth that isn’t dependent on one factor only.

When my Form 1 class performs well, as they have every term this academic year, thus far, achieving results way beyond that of the other Form 1 classes, I am very careful in what I say now. I always tell them, as I am about to distribute report cards, how hard they worked this term, how consistent they were in their studies, and how, as a result, their report cards should be a source of pride. I tell them that YET AGAIN they worked well in their classes and well together in groups and these are their results. I don’t know what is said at home, but somewhere, somehow I can only hope that they feel the connection between working hard and doing well.

According to Thomas Edison, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’’. Accordingly a genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.