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.
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:
1. Climate identifies the general attitude. Do we act in a warm and friendly way towards our children?
2. Input identifies the amount of time we spend with our child. Do we spend quality time and energy in interacting with our children?
3. Output identifies the expectations we have for our children. Do we expect them to give good answers, have intelligent conversations with us, and be able to problem-solve?
4. Feedback identifies the kind of feedback we give our children. Do we speak harshly or disparagingly when they make poor choices, or do we encourage them to explain their reasoning and help them find better alternatives?
The Pygmalion Effect and Verbal Interactions
Don’t get me wrong. Pedro and I had plenty of discussions about our kids’ behavior behind closed doors. When we saw a trait or pattern that concerned us, we brainstormed ways of dealing with the problem. We knew we didn’t have perfect children—but we also knew they didn’t have perfect parents.
Our rules about verbal interactions looked something like this:
1. Never make excuses for our kids. Telling a stranger, “She’s shy,” turns into a crutch and self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we would coach our kids on how to interact appropriately with others.
2. Praise the product, encourage the child. We garnered this one from a talk by Barbara Coloroso (who has some excellent books on teaching and parenting). This looks like honest praise. When your youngster shows you a paper full of stick figures, don’t automatically say, “Oh! That’s beautiful! You’re such a good artist!” Kids know when someone is shining them on. Have a conversation about the picture. Ask them what each thing represents. When they finish, say, “I can see how much work you’ve put into this picture! Thank you for sharing it with me. I can’t wait to see what you draw next.” When our girls were young, we encouraged their efforts by buying their books and pieces of artwork (fortunately, they never charged much).
3. Expect your children to be each other’s best friend. Before our girls started school, I found a beautiful book by Dr. John Trent called Spider Sisters. We read it to them often and had the expectation that they would stick up for each other, play well with each other, and have a ready-made friend for life. It worked.
4. When we messed up, ask for a do-over. I started using this one when our girls entered their teen years and started boundary pushing. My short temper often dug a hole for me that I didn’t want to stay in. I would take a deep breath, say a quick prayer, and ask if we could replay the scene. At first, they thought I’d lost my mind. But replaying the scene with the intention of making it turn out well always changed the outcome.
Speak Well – It Isn’t Just Bragging
Don’t confuse speaking well about your children with bragging about your children. Speaking (and thinking) well of your children involves a life-long intentional attitude that helps your child develop to the greatest of his or her potential. Bragging just makes other people uncomfortable.
Of course, human nature loves to show off and brag, so I confess to bragging on occasion (hopefully, I don’t do it too often!). I like to share the good news about my kids’ accomplishments on Facebook. They have both overcome obstacles that have shaped them into the caring, intelligent, creative, compassionate, witty, resourceful, beautiful young women that they are today. I greatly admire both of them.
This article originally appeared at AnitaOjeda.com.