206. “I’m Terrible At This”

We don’t want children to put themselves down. We want them to feel good about themselves, and what they create, and when they put themselves down, they make us think their self-esteem is not so hot. Parents, teachers, and other adults are often at a loss when they hear children say how terrible they are at things.
Let’s simplify this matter by looking at three possibilities. One is that the child’s self-esteem is fine, and the self-criticism is really intended to elicit attention and appreciation. If I suspect that that’s what’s going on, my response is usually to go ahead and appreciate, and then ask the child, in a serious voice, “You really don’t like it?” If I’m right, and the child was just looking for a pat on the back, it doesn’t usually take long to find out.
The second possibility is that the child is feeling sincerely self-critical, and needs some help. If this is the case, I find it effective to focus not on the child, but on what the child has done. The drawing, story, or other item the child has created, though probably connected to the child’s self-esteem, is not the child. In my experience, efforts to convince the child of his/her competence are less effective than appreciation of what the child has done. Chaim Ginott is eloquent on this issue; read Between Parent and Child and/or Between Teacher and Child if you want to hear more about it.
The most difficult scenario is the one that’s most typical of older children (sorry – I won’t assign a specific age to these children): the child is sincerely self-critical, and is not so easy to turn around. If that’s what’s happening, arguing is ineffective, and often counterproductive. The child thinks that adults are supposed to help incompetent children feel good about themselves, and the more you try to do so, the more incompetent the child feels.
If this is what seems to be happening, first of all, I remind myself that no matter how impressed I am with what the child has done, any appreciation I give has to be low-key. And I also try to focus on what the child is thinking and feeling: “What do you think is one of the problems with what you’ve done?” Children, at first, are suspicious. They think my question is a prelude to an attempt to build them up, and they are not ready to be built up; they want their view of themselves, however critical, to be respected, not contradicted. If the goal is to help the child feel competent, sometimes there is a necessary detour – recognizing and respecting the feeling of incompetence.
We’re supposed to try to have the serenity to accept what we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. When a child says, “I’m terrible at this,” knowing the difference can be quite a challenge.

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