Oops! Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Said That!

July 18, 2017

by Jim Delisle, Educator, Author and Yunasa Fellow

As parents, each of us has the unique opportunity to be embarrassed by something we said to our children. Whether spoken out of anger, tiredness or an awkward attempt to be funny, adults (present company included…) sometimes regret our words the minute they leave our mouths. The best solution is to apologize to your kid and blame it on your advancing age.

However, there are some times that we say things that, even in retrospect, we think are helpful for our kids to hear…and they’re not; I’ve listed a few of them below. If you find yourself saying “uh oh…I just said that last week”, take a deep breath, apologize as needed, and move on. Just don’t say them again, OK?

  1. Watch your words and the unintentional impacts they might have.

When an adult says something like this: “You did a great job on this assignment, but…”, the only thing that most kids are likely to remember is what comes after the word “but…” Human nature being what it is, when most people receive a compliment simultaneously with an urge to improve, they focus on what wasn’t done well rather than what was accomplished. This is especially noticeable with those who underachieve. In fact, even if an adult (parent or teacher) compliments a student without mentioning a need to improve, the most perfectionistic of these underachieving students will often add their own caveat, such as “Well, I would have done a better job if I had another week to work on it.” If your child starts telling you that “my project could have been better if…” shut it down in mid-sentence, reminding him or her that the work they did was of high quality. If it is the case that your kid does need to improve in some areas, it’s fine to bring that up–later. Remember: coupling  a compliment with an urge to do better is a “kick in the but…” that all of us can live without.

  1. Say what you really mean.

Often, gifted kids are leery of pursuing something new, for fear that they won’t be successful; they’d rather stick with the tried-and-true than risk doing something original. Adults try to help (but don’t…) by saying something like “I don’t care about your grade as long as you try your best.” To the gifted and/or perfectionistic person, the only of these words remembered are your best. Of course, the message you intended to send had nothing to do with performing perfectly, as you were just trying to encourage an opportunity to explore something different. The solution to this one is easy–you simply say, “I don’t care about your grade as long as you try.” That’s what you meant, but taking the onus of peak performance off the table and asking only that your child tries sends a comforting message to someone afraid of failing to reach the expectations of an adult who is trying to help.

  1. Erase the word “potential” from your vocabulary.

Another statement likely to land you in places you didn’t intend to go is one that underachieving students, especially, hear all too often: “You’re not working up to your potential.” Such a message, often delivered at parent-teacher conferences, is wrong on many levels. First, it implies that you, the adult(s) know the extent of this kid’s abilities, but you’re not going to get specific about how high they are. Second, it is such a vague statement that no child or teenager possibly knows how to interpret it, as you’ve given no indicators as to where the benchmark of adequate performance lies. Third, instead of focusing on what has been accomplished, this statement beams in on whatever it is that has not been done, the specifics of which are often left unstated. A better approach for a child with high abilities that have not yet been attained is to talk about actual work that has been completed, asking the young person’s own opinion of what was done well, what could have been done better, and what steps (if any) can be taken from this day forward to complete the project or assignment. Specificity builds on the positive rather than talking abstractly about one’s unmet potential.

One final comment on the topic of “potential”: have you reached yours? If so, congratulations! However, my guess is that no one actually believes that potential is an end point, but rather, a constantly evolving target that we strive throughout our lives to reach. You might want to share this nugget of truth with your children, as well.

So…feeling guilty? Even a little? Join the club, apologize, move on…and watch your words!

Jim Delisle has worked with and for gifted kids for 40 years.  He is a Yunasa Fellow and a member of the IEA Board of Directors.  The author of 19 books on gifted children, this blog is an excerpt from his upcoming book, “Doing poorly on purpose: Underachievement and the quest for dignity,” to be published in 2017 by ASCD.

Like this post? Sign up for our email newsletter to receive more stories, information, and resources about gifted youth straight to your inbox.