Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes

© 2011 – 2019 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Sometimes children disappoint us. They make mistakes, misbehave, or simply fail to meet our standards. How to handle these disappointments?

You might be candid and tell kids how you feel. “I’m disappointed in you.”

But experiments suggest this is not the best approach.

The trouble is that personal criticism can be interpreted as a judgment about an individual’s innate limitations. When children hear statements like, “you’re so lazy,” or “I’m disappointed in you,” they may take it to heart. They may conclude that they are intrinsically inferior, and feel helpless to change. They don’t make any attempt to learn from their mistakes or improve themselves.

Referencing a child’s behavior is more helpful — “you are acting lazy” instead of “you are lazy. ”

But the best way to get results? Change behavior? Encourage kids to do better?

Decades of research point in the same direction. Kids are more likely to improve when we focus on reinforcing what they’ve done right, rather than punishing what they’ve done wrong. 

father and young child having pleasant, face-to-face conversation on a bed; child holding phone

For instance, studies suggest that the right sort of praise — cheering on a child’s efforts, strategies, or good deeds — can inspire kids to keep striving.

Called “process praise,” this type of praise is linked with successful child outcomes, including academic ones (Gunderson et al 2018a). In one recent study, researchers found that toddlers who received lots of encouraging process praise were more likely, as fourth graders, to excel in mathematics (Gunderson et al 2018b).

But what should you do in those moments when your child does something wrong?

When you have to deal with a mistake, don’t pile on the shame. Instead, encourage your child to take a problem-solving approach. Invite your child to think of solutions.

The evidence for this comes from an intriguing experiment conducted on kindergartners.

“Can you think of a better way?”

As we’ll see below, these might be the magic words.

What happens when we criticize young children?

Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck (1999) wanted to know, so they presented 67 kindergartners with some role-playing scenarios. Each scenario was a story of failure and feedback from a teacher, and featured the listener as protagonist.

Here is an example.

One day you are playing with Legos. The teacher, Mrs. Billington, comes over and says, “Will you make me a beautiful house with those Legos?”

You say, “OK, Mrs. Billington.” So you work really hard and try to build a good house for the teacher. You put the Legos together to make four walls and then you add a roof.

You really want to make the teacher a nice house, but you look down at the house you built, and you think to yourself, “Uh-oh, I forgot to put any windows on the house,” but you want to give it to Mrs. Billington, so you say, “Teacher, I made a house for you!” The teacher looks at the house you built and says, “That house has no windows.”

The story ended in one of four ways.

  • In the control condition, there was no further action. The teacher noted the lack of windows and made no further comment.
  • In the Person Criticism condition, the story ended with the teacher’s disapproval. She made several criticisms and concluded by saying “I’m disappointed in you.”
  • In the Outcome Criticism condition, the teacher’s criticism focused on the outcome, not the child. “That’s not the right way to do it.”
  • In the Process Criticism condition, the teacher simply noted the mistake (“The blocks are all crooked and in one big mess”) and then invited the child to think about alternatives: “Maybe you could think of another way to do it.”

When the story was over, interviewers asked kids a series of questions, like:

  • How did the story make you feel?
  • Did the story make you feel like a good girl or not a good girl?
  • Did the story make you feel smart or not smart?

The kids were also tested on their persistence. Interviewers asked kids to think of their own sequel to the scenario. What would the child in the story do next?

And kids were asked “would you like to do the Lego house again or do something else instead?”

How kids responded to different kinds of feedback

The results were pretty clear.

Children who’d received person criticism (“I’m disappointed in you”) were more likely to think they weren’t good at the skill featured in the scenario.

They felt worse about themselves, and they were more likely to give up without fixing the problem.

The better approaches?

Both outcome feedback (“That’s not the right way to do it”) and process feedback (“Maybe you could think of another way to do it”) were linked with more persistence. 

And the kids who’d received process feedback had the most optimism about their abilities. Compared to the kids in the person criticism group, they were less likely to feel unskilled.

Applications to everyday parenting

Of course, these experiments concerned a child’s architectural efforts, not behavior problems. Can we apply the principle of process feedback to the sorts of misbehavior that parents typically struggle with?

I think so, but we need to keep in mind. Kids often get into trouble over things they are still struggling to understand. They resort to aggression to solve a conflict. Or disobey rules we’ve set for them. Or otherwise behave disruptively.

So simply asking them for “another way to do it” isn’t enough. We also need to help them figure out what sorts of solutions are available.

It’s important, for instance, for young children to talk with us about how their behavior makes other people feel. Young children are still developing their perspective-taking skills. They don’t always anticipate how other people will react, and they don’t always know how to make other people feel better.

We can help kids make sense of the options by providing them with “emotion coaching.” For tips, see this article about it.

And what about shaming? Is it always bad idea?

As we’ve seen, the experiments by Kamins and Dweck didn’t concern children being disrespectful or selfish or deliberately destructive. In such cases, might the words “I’m disappointed in you” have beneficial effects? Wouldn’t it make kids feel ashamed, and motivate them to behave better?

The evidence suggests otherwise.

As I explain in another article, we feel very threatened when we are shamed. As a result, we may become angry and resentful, or try to deny responsibility for our actions (Tangney et al 1992).

And as we’ve seen in the experiment on kindergartners, shame may make kids feel helpless to change. I’m just a bad person. There’s nothing I can do about it.

Then there are the added problems that arise with the public shaming of children. It’s one thing to discreetly inform a child you’re unhappy with her behavior. Broadcasting her shortcomings to the world is another.

Studies of young elementary school students suggest that kids are more likely to reject peers if they perceive them to be in less supportive student-teacher relationships (Hughes et al 2001; Hughes and Kwok 2006, Hughes et al 2006).

When students are singled out for being incompetent or badly-behaved, they subsequently receive less social acceptance from other kids in the class (Hughes and Zhang 2007; McAuliffe et al 2009).

Needless to say, that’s bad, and not only because it makes kids feel more socially isolated. Kids who feel rejected by peers become less motivated at school, which can lead to a downward spiral of lower achievement, increased behavior problems, and even more social rejection.

Does this mean we shouldn’t talk with kids about the consequences of their bad behavior?

Of course not. Psychologists distinguish between feelings of shame and feelings of guilt. Feelings of guilt make us focus on the on people we’ve harmed. It encourages us to make amends. To make things right. In essence, it’s a socially constructive emotion. It’s our conscience encouraging us to do better.

So should we explain that their misdeeds are unacceptable? Yes. Should we ask kids to consider the feelings of their victims? Yes. Empathy is an important component of moral development. But we can do these things without making kids feel hopeless or humiliated. For more information, see this article about helping kids cope with emotions, and understand the feelings of other people.

More reading about correcting behavior

Criticism is only one way to make kids feel helpless about their failures.

Another way is to lavish kids with the wrong sort of praise. Research suggests that generic praise (“You’re so smart!”) can make kids think that intelligence is an innate, fixed trait, and that achievement is determined by factors beyond the individual’s control. So when these kids fail, they are quick to give up. Kids may also lose motivation if they feel praise is insincere or undeserved.

To learn more, see these these evidence-based tips about effective praise.

For information about how to avoid behavior problems, see my articles about positive parenting, authoritative parenting, and emotion coaching.

For help coping with disruptive, defiant, or aggressive behavior, see these evidence-based tips.

References: Correcting behavior

Gunderson EA, Donnellan MB, Robins RW, Trzesniewski KH. 2018a. The specificity of parenting effects: Differential relations of parent praise and criticism to children’s theories of intelligence and learning goals. J Exp Child Psychol. 173:116-135.

Gunderson EA, Sorhagen NS, Gripshover SJ, Dweck CS, Goldin-Meadow S, Levine SC. 2018b. Parent praise to toddlers predicts fourth grade academic achievement via children’s incremental mindsets. Dev Psychol. 54(3):397-409.

Hughes JN, Cavell TA, and Willson V. 2001. Further support for the developmental significance of the quality of the teacher–student relationship. Journal of School Psychology 39:289–301.

Hughes JN and Kwok OM. 2006. Classroom engagement mediates the effect of teacher-student support on elementary students’ peer acceptance: A prospective analysis. J Sch Psychol. 43(6):465-480.

Hughes JN, Zhang D, and Hill CR. 2006. Peer assessments of normative and individual teacher-student support predict social acceptance and engagement among low-achieving children. J Sch Psychol. 43(6):447-463.

Hughes JN and Zhang D. 2007. Effects of the structure of classmates’ perceptions of peers’ academic abilities on children’s perceived cognitive competence, peer acceptance, and engagement. Contemp Educ Psychol. 32(3):400-419. Hughes JN, Zhang D.

Kamins M and Dweck C. 1999. Person versus process praise and criticism:Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology 30(3): 835-847.

McAuliffe MD, Hubbard JA, Romano LJ. The role of teacher cognition and behavior in children’s peer relations. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 37(5):665-77.

Tangney JP, Wagner P, Fletcher C, Gramzow R. 1992. Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 62(4):669-75.

Content of “Correcting behavior” last modified 4/2019

image of father talking with toddler on bed by istock / Liderina