HOW TO RESPOND WHEN THEY SAY THEY’RE STUPID
12 May, 2023
Author: Judith Locke – Clinical Psychologist, speaker, author
Justine was chopping carrots for dinner, as her son, Sam, was doing his homework in his room. Peace reigned until a loud scream suddenly came from Sam, ‘Aggh! I can’t do it. I’m so stupid!’
What did Justine do next?
Well, if she was like many parents, she would leap into action. She’d race to her child’s side to see what the kerfuffle was. When she got there, she’d ask what was wrong. And Sam might reply about the maths question he didn’t get right or the diorama in which the cardboard wasn’t doing what it should.
In response, Justine would then likely do three things. First, she might top up Sam’s self-confidence with immediate reassurance. ‘No Sam, you’re not stupid. You are very smart. Let me help you.’
Next, she would probably help him work out the maths problem. She may offer to do all the gluing to get the cardboard sticking. Justine might even stick around for the rest of his homework to check he is accomplishing everything to a great standard.
Finally, Justine might bring up her concerns about Sam’s confidence with his teacher. Or commit to a goal of praising him more in the future, to improve the self-assurance he appeared to lack.
Now these are doubtlessly the actions of a caring parent who wants their child to feel confident and capable. But let me offer a few alternative opinions about where the real problems lie.
The first issue is that Sam has experienced a moment of frustration in not accomplishing something the first time. Rather than persisting with it, he has made a strong, loud statement about his skills. This ‘all or nothing’ thinking won’t help him keep persevering despite the first hurdle.
Indeed, being ok with initial difficulty is the key to doing well at subjects like maths or physical skills, where you rarely get it right the first time. To this end, I would have preferred Justine to say that struggling with homework is somewhat normal. And let Sam know that he can’t expect to do well at everything the first time, and that hurdles happen often when learning new things.
Additionally, Sam has yelled out in a way that almost guaranteed that his mother would come running and provide a solution. It solved his problem, but it’s not a pro-social skill to scream out every time he is frustrated. Alternatively, imagine how empowered students would feel if they knew they could ask for help when they needed it, rather than passively shouting, and waiting for others to come running.
If Sam came to the kitchen and asked for assistance, it would be even better if his parent said they’d have time to help, if he could just help them for a few minutes by cutting up some vegetables. Then Sam would experience the confidence of being able to give and receive help. That’s going to make him feel better about his value in the world.
And the final action of praising him a bit more? Yes, some praise is a good thing. But don’t simply note the things a child is ‘good’ at. Praise them for the skills they are showing. Some talents Justine could encourage are Sam’s efforts to keep persisting and trying his best. Or his bravery in asking for help when he is struggling. Or thanking him for his assistance in the kitchen as they both go off to solve his homework issue.
The skills of sitting with difficulty, persistence and asking for help are equally, if not more, important than the abilities people show when they easily glide into success. Praise the right ones and you truly set your child up for a life of accomplishment.
Takeaway for parents:
What if your child often yells ‘I’m so stupid’?
- Explain you’re happy to help them with their homework.
- But encourage them to come to you and politely ask for help, rather than scream out.
- Then, if they yell out self-criticisms, ignore them until they come to you.
- When helping, ask them what their efforts are, so far. You are looking for their labours and persistence.
- Coach them but don’t do it for them. Once they have got it, leave them to it.
- If they are rude, tell them they need to be polite, or you won’t assist.
Wellbeing Coordinator / Registered Psychologist