Mamas, Speak Well of Your Children…Or Else

I stood in line, waiting to board the plane. After two gate changes and mechanical malfunctions, I yearned to sink into my cramped seat and relax. I hoped against hope that the loud lady in line in front of me had a seat at the opposite end of the airplane. I couldn’t help but overhear her voice-and cringe at the words pouring out of her mouth.

“My kids are such little s**ts!” she exclaimed to her traveling companion, another younger lady.

“Mine, too,” the companion said. “They’re so picky in what they eat I end up cooking three different meals every night-one for the girl, one for the boy, and one for my husband and I.”

“It’s just easier to not be home,” Loud Lady exclaimed. “The little brats never pick up after themselves and they fight all the time.” The tirade continued as she enumerated all of her children’s faults. It seems as if they got in trouble at home and at school and had jumped on the fast track to delinquency.

I heaved a sigh of gratefulness when the gate agent announced that the passengers could now board. Finally! As I made my way to my seat, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those women—and their hapless children.

There’s No Such Thing as a Perfect Kid

My kids weren’t perfect, but my husband and I, as educators, had both heard of the Pygmalion Effect and made a pact to always speak well of our children. Don’t get me wrong, when our children misbehaved, we spoke—but always to them, and in private as often as possible.

Psychologists Rosenthal and Jacobsen first wrote about The Pygmalion Effect in 1968 when they published their findings after studying an elementary school for a year. They set up their experiment by lying to a few teachers and telling them that their incoming class of students had been specially selected because a new Harvard intelligence test had predicted that these students would bloom intellectually within the next year.

In reality, the students had all taken a regular IQ test and the researchers selected them at random for the study. Surprisingly, each student in the ‘about to bloom’ group scored higher on the standard IQ test at the end of the year. In addition, they got good grades and posed few behavior problems for their teachers.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that positive expectations (teachers thought they had a class of brilliant students) resulted in positive outcomes. Conversely, negative expectations result in negative outcomes.

Our thoughts about a person—including our children—dictate our behavior towards that person, which in turn has a subsequent effect on how that person acts and reacts, thus further fueling our positive (or negative) interactions.

In other words, Rosenthal and Jacobsen proved that the adage first attributed to Henry Ford in 1947—Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right—to work both ways.

The Pygmalion Effect and Nonverbal Parenting Skills

Of course, once the researchers admitted to lying about student intelligence, no one has successfully replicated the exact results of their study. Rosenthal and other researchers have continued to study the Pygmalion Effect, searching for the key as to why expectations influenced outcomes. In the 1980s Rosenthal published a study that identified four key nonverbal elements that subtly influence behavior: climate, input, output, and feedback.

speak well

While Rosenthal specifically studied teachers and classrooms, it stands to reason that those same four nonverbal elements affect our children as well. Here are how the four elements relate to our parenting:

Anita Ojeda
Anita Ojeda
Anita Ojeda is a teacher and author who writes at and at her blog Blessed (but Stressed). When she’s not lurking outdoors looking for and photographing rare birds in odd places, you can find her hanging out with her husband, camping with her kids, or mountain biking with her students.

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