8 Things to Say When Your Child Says They Are Dumb

When we are asked to complete a task, we typically show one of three motivations: performance approach, performance avoid, or mastery. The orientation, or approach, we bring to the task has a significant impact on how we feel about attempting it.

For example:

A performance approach orientation means we’ll have a go at something because we are reasonably confident we can do it well. You probably find that your son is quite happy to take on reading challenges that aren’t particularly, well… challenging.

A performance avoid orientation means that we shy away from anything we think might lead to failure or mistakes. This particular motivation seems to be what your son is showing in relation to reading unfamiliar words, or if he is asked to change his behaviour. Somewhere in his mind, he feels like he is failing. He verbalises ‘I’m dumb” as a way of justifying his performance, and demonstrating that he shouldn’t keep reading, or to play the ‘victim’ in relation to his actions. ‘I’m dumb’ means I can’t help it. It’s not my fault. There are aspects of me that simply cannot change.

A mastery orientation is seen when we look for tasks that we are going to be challenged by. They’re too tough for us to breeze through, and we’ll probably make loads of mistakes. Yet this is exciting for us because, even though it can be embarrassing when we get it wrong, we love the idea of learning and growth.

Research suggests that people with a performance motivational mindset generally adopt both the approach and avoidance strategies, depending on the circumstances. But they rarely, if ever, adopt a mastery orientation. And research also tells us that the performance and mastery orientations to challenge are about equally distributed.

How it affects behaviour

There’s an old saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The idea is that we can do whatever we put our mind to. The great challenge is that many children don’t recognise this, and many parents don’t teach this to their children.

Studies clearly demonstrate that people with greater ability but a performance mindset will actually perform more poorly over time than will people with less ability but a mastery mindset.

Teaching kids mastery matters

When your child tells you he/she is dumb or stupid because he can’t spell a word, or because his behaviour needs correcting, the messages you send him can promote one mindset or another. By telling him,

“No you’re not dumb. Look at how smart you are. You read all of those words!”

you actually promote a performance mindset. This happens for a couple of reasons.

  1. Arguing with your child about their intellect will not change their mind. They’ll move into defensive mode and, whether they say so or not, will actually solidify their position with evidence that they are really dumb.
  2. Research shows that when we tell someone how smart they are (or how beautiful, or artistic, or talented), they feel a need to protect that reputation. Protecting their reputation (or label) means that they will take on fewer risks and do more of what they feel safe doing, knowing they are competent to a particular level. But they stop stretching themselves.

There is something else you can do that may help much more. I recommend that you tell him:

“You feel embarrassed when you can’t work out the words sometimes, don’t you.”

“Reading can be really tough sometimes can’t it?”

By recognising the emotions he is feeling, your son will feel understood. Spend some time on those emotions. Then you might say something like:

“Did you know that everyone has some challenges and difficulties with words sometimes. It’s pretty normal. It even happens to me when I read some of my books.”

This helps your child recognise that not only is what he is feeling and experiencing able to be named and described, but it is normal, and it can be controlled.

If your child is like most people, once they feel understood and realise that they’re not the only one who has these kinds of struggles, they will calm down. Once calm, they will be teachable. (While upset, defensive, or frustrated, they are unlikely to be teachable in any way.) At this point you can share other feelings…

“It makes me sad when you say you’re dumb.”

Additionally, you might find it helpful to ask questions:

“Why do you think you’re stupid?”

“If you want to get better at something, what do you need to do?”

“I love trying new things, and making mistakes. Can you think of why?”

These question will guide your child to a recognition that he is progressing and learning. And they will orient him away from believing there are labels that define him. They will promote a mastery, rather than a performance, mindset.

Beyond these ideas, I suggest that when your child does something easily, you point it out and then tell them it’s time to try something harder where they’ll make mistakes because that more fun. Point out that challenges make us better at things. And lastly, be a model of attempting new things, failing, and putting new learning into practise.

This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.

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  1. dawnblyth 05/05/2019 at 11:41 pm

    Sitting with my son doing his homework we often get comments like this and trying to change his mind doesn’t work. Positive reinforcement and working through things with him does help sometimes

  2. SarahBlair 03/05/2019 at 7:28 pm

    My son gets down about his learning at times, he’s only been at school for half a term and he expects so much from himself. I remind him that he just starting out and has already come so far, and that he’s not supposed to know it all already, that’s why we learn.

  3. Shorrty4life1 15/04/2019 at 11:30 am

    This was a great read I find it very interesting. My Mr 5 year old has learning difficulties and struggles really bad so this would be good to find tips and tricks for him off there even if it’s just boosting confidence.

  4. Mands1980 12/04/2019 at 11:49 am

    My kids say things like these sometimes just because they struggle at schooling but I try and tell them it doesn’t mean the are dumb or stupid. They only see one side brainy kids and when you try super hard it is a struggle but I can only be there for them and say how good they are at certain things. This article helps us to try say the right things to our kids in the right ways.

  5. Bevik1971 11/04/2019 at 12:13 pm

    My 6 year old has come out with this a couple of times 🙁 I was put down my entire childhood and told I was stupid, this leads to low self esteem and feeling unworthy and is terrible. I definitely am not having my kids feel that way! We encourage our daughter to try hard, but not feel worthless or “dumb” when she can’t do something. I say trying to do something is the most important thing 🙂

  6. Micht 10/04/2019 at 2:25 pm

    Ive watched parents really put their kids down and the result is very capable children who are demotivated and with low self esteems…i think it is so important what we say and what we input into our kids lives… i may at times in my own need for my children to do well, push them…but then i realize i have to step back and let them find their own way…by doing this i find i give them more of what they need…great article…!!

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