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Praise Character, Discipline Action

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (April 11, 2019)

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me”

I think the above phrase is most untrue. Broken bones can be mended and healed in a couple of months but words that hurt our hearts can scar for years and are much harder to heal from. I’ve heard stories of how people later on in life remember something their primary school teacher said to them or how their parents scolded them as a young child.

Words have such an amazing power – to build up or to break down, to heal or to hurt and words said be remembered for years after they have been said. Which is why we have to be so careful about what we say to our children.

Recently, I heard about a teacher who was trying to teach a student how to better behave himself in class and all he could say was “this is the way I am. My mum always says I’m naughty”. How tragic that this boy, and I’m sure many others, have labeled themselves as being naughty and feel like they can’t take that label off themselves! Some children I’ve met don’t bother to try doing things right because they think they’ll mess up anyways so why bother?

One thing I truly believe in that will build our children up and not break them down is this – praise character and discipline action.

What this means is to attribute the good things to their internal character and have them internalize positive statements about themselves but to discipline their actions so as to externalize negative actions.

For example, imagine a situation at home where the older sibling shares his toy with his younger sibling. Praising character would sound something like this:

“You’re so generous for sharing your toy with your brother”

“You’re so kind for giving him your toy to play with”

Statements start with “you are” and a positive adjective that describes their character helps them internalize the statement about themselves. If a child believes that she is generous and kind, she is more likely to exhibit behaviours that reflect those traits in the future.

Now imagine this: the older sibling snatches a toy from the younger sibling and the younger one starts crying. Disciplining action could sound something like this:

“Snatching his toy wasn’t a kind thing to do.”

“Taking someone’s things without asking can hurt their feelings”

Instead of saying something like “that was so naughty of you”, it is to focus on how the action of snatching and taking things is not a good action to take. Actions can be changed more easily than a personality character flaw. So to focus on how the action was a negative one and how it had consequences to the situation. Then the hope is that they would minimize those actions in the future. From there, the discussion could be “how did it make your younger brother feel?” “how would you feel if someone snatched your things?” “how do you think you can make things better now?”. Walking through the process and bringing in social-emotional aspects can ensure that the discipline is leading to positive behaviours next time.

Help your child to remember the positives about themselves and to internalize them as part of their character and to externalize their negative actions to minimize them. Remember, they will always remember what you say about them so speak carefully!


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