Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives

Welcome to the October 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Instilling a Healthy Self-Image

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared confessions, wisdom, and goals for helping children love who they are. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


When I was growing up, “self-esteem” was a huge deal. Parents were exhorted to tell their kids how great we were. Not just smart, of course, but pretty, talented, strong, etc. Thirty years of research have shown that to be kind of a bad idea (click here for science!). Self-esteem is important, but no one gets self-esteem from a world in which every kid gets a trophy and we all know that we’re special snowflakes.

To be fair, my parents were not terribly over-the-top with the self-esteem thing, especially my dad. He still talks about the time I “won” first prize in my division at an elementary school science fair. My dad pointed out that no one else had entered…so I also came in last place. From an early age, my brother and I knew that a “Participation” ribbon that everyone got was meaningless. My parents didn’t ever try to change our minds about that.

I believe that kids develop a positive self-image by actually achieving things–by facing a challenge and overcoming it. I believe the science that says that kids who think of themselves as “smart” actually avoid challenges, because if they fail, then they’re not smart anymore. Similarly, I know kids who use the fact that someone has labeled them “dumb” or “lazy” to just quit trying.

The problem here is that adjectives are hard to change. Your eyes are blue. You’re good at math. It’s just part of your state. What you can change, though, is how hard you work and how willing you are to accept a challenge. Kids who think of their intellectual capacity as a fixed quantity tend to avoid challenges.

I’m also not a big fan of the way kids who are overpraised look to an adult for evaluation all the time. I’ve had the experience of teaching elementary school kids and seeing them complete a drawing and then look to me, as if to say, “Is it good?” I confounded a number of them by saying, “What do you think of it? Which part was the hardest? What is your favorite part?” Lots of them had been so used to having a parent or teacher tell them what was good about their own work that they didn’t really know how to analyze it.

As a kid, I played the violin. I had this friend, Alex M., who also played the violin. She was way, way better than I was, even though we started playing around the same age. I remember telling myself that this was because she was super talented, and I wasn’t. I still think that’s a little bit true–I marvel at my musician friends and how they can really understand the deep structures of the music, how they can make the tiniest adjustment and change the whole thing. However, I also know that it’s not quite true. Alex worked much, much harder than I did. She practiced for several hours every day; I rarely found the motivation to do more than the hour that my teacher required. She sought out other musicians and opportunities to play; I was pretty shy about getting my instrument out in front of people (because I wasn’t that good, because I didn’t play that much). Telling myself that Alex was better because she had some innate gifts was really an excuse, and maybe I even knew it then.

It is this memory that makes me determined to avoid using adjectives with Silas, and to focus instead on the verbs. I don’t say, “That’s a pretty picture,” or “You’re a good artist.” I say, “You made lots of circles in this picture” or “You used leaves as brushes. What a neat idea!”

What makes this hard is, let’s just be honest here, he is smart. At his two-year-old check-up, his doctor was asking me questions from a development check list. One of them was, “How large would you estimate his vocabulary to be?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I said.

The doctor looked at me quizzically. “Well, just ballpark. Like, two hundred words? Three hundred?”

“Two thousand?” I guessed. He looked at me like I was one of Those Moms, and maybe I am. Silas probably knows two hundred different animals alone. The kid can identify at least six different bird species that we have in our yard. He knows all the colors in a Crayola 16-pack. He can reliably count groups of six objects, can offer at least one sound for each of the ten letters that he knows, and uses similes. We are not a coaching/flashcard kind of family; he’s picked all this up on his own. Of course, he hadn’t said a word to the doctor, who, I am sure, did not believe me.

I know that he’s smart, but I try to avoid saying it, and I try to keep him from overhearing other people saying it. Instead, I focus on the work that he has done, which at his age, is considerable. Remember, only a year ago, he only said a dozen words. Now, it’s more than I can count. Early in the summer, he saw his friend Lillian (who is three years older than he is) jumping, and he couldn’t do it. He has spent the entire summer trying to learn how, and only recently mastered it. He could barely walk this time last year, and now he runs all over the place. That’s a ton of work and practice and determination, not just talent. He didn’t figure out jumping by sitting around, being innately good at it.

He completed a 20-something piece puzzle the other day, all by himself. I almost said, “You are so good at puzzles!” but I caught myself. Instead, I offered, “Wow, you did it all by yourself. Last week you couldn’t even do two pieces, and today you did all of them. You have been practicing.”

He applauded for himself and said, “Wow! You did it!” (Pronouns. Still working on pronouns.). Then he said, “Break it up? Do again?”


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon October 9 with all the carnival links.)

  • Why I Walk Around Naked — Meegs at A New Day talks about how she embraces her own body so that her daughter might embrace hers.
  • What I Am Is Not Who I Am — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses her views on the importance of modeling WHO she is for her daughter and not WHAT she sees in the mirror.
  • Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives — Alisha at Cinnamon & Sassafras tries hard to compliment what her son does, not who he is.
  • The Naked Family — Sam at Love Parenting talks about how nudity and bodily functions are approached in her home.
  • How She’ll See Herself — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis discusses some of the challenges of raising a daughter in our culture and how she’s hoping to overcome them.
  • Self Esteem and all it’s pretty analogies — Musings from Laura at Pug in the Kitchen on what she learned about self-esteem in her own life and how it applies to her parenting.
  • Beautiful — Tree at Mom Grooves writes about giving her daughter the wisdom to appreciate her body and how trying to be a role model taught Tree how to appreciate her own.
  • Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Nurturing A Healthy Body Image — Christy at Eco Journey in the Burbs is changing perceptions about her body so that she may model living life with a positive, healthy body image for her three young daughters.
  • Some{BODY} to LoveKate Wicker has faced her own inner demons when it comes to a poor body image and even a clinical eating disorder, and now she wants to help her daughters to be strong in a world that constantly puts girls at risk for losing their true selves. This is Kate’s love letter to her daughters reminding them to not only accept their bodies but to accept themselves as well in every changing season of life.
  • They Make Creams For That, You Know — Destany at They Are All of Me writes about celebrating her natural beauty traits, especially the ones she passed onto her children.
  • New Shoes for Mama — Kellie of Our Mindful Life, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, is getting some new shoes, even though she is all grown up…
  • Raising boys with bodily integrity — Lauren at Hobo Mama wants her boys to understand their own bodily autonomy — so they’ll respect their own and others’.
  • Sowing seeds of self-love in our children — After struggling to love herself despite growing up in a loving family, Shonnie at Heart-Led Parenting has suggestions for parents who truly want to nurture their children’s self-esteem.
  • Subtle Ways to Build a Healthy Self-Image — Emily at S.A.H.M i AM discusses the little things she and her husband do every day to help their daughter cultivate a healthy self-image.
  • On Barbie and Baby Bikinis: The Sexualization of Young Girls — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger finds it difficult to keep out the influx of messages aimed at her young daughters that being sexy is important.
  • Undistorted — Focusing on the beauty and goodness that her children hold, Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children watches them grow, loved and undistorted.
  • Off The Hook — Arpita at Up, Down and Natural sheds light on the journey of infertility, and how the inability to get pregnant and stay pregnant takes a toll on self image…only if you let it. And that sometimes, it feels fantastic to just let yourself off the hook.
  • Going Beyond Being An Example — Becky at Old New Legacy discusses three suggestions on instilling healthy body image: positivity, family dinners, and productivity.
  • Raising a Confident Kid — aNonymous at Radical Ramblings describes the ways she’s trying to raise a confident daughter and to instil a healthy attitude to appearance and self-image.
  • Instilling a Healthy Self Image — Laura at This Mama’s Madness hopes to promote a healthy self-image in her kids by treating herself and others with respect, honesty, and grace.
  • Stories of our Uniqueness — Casey at Sesame Seed Designs looks for a connection to the past and celebrates the stories our bodies can tell about the present.
  • Helping My Boy Build a Healthy Body Image — Lyndsay at ourfeminist{play}school offers readers a collection of tips and activities that she uses in her journey to helping her 3-year-old son shape a healthy body image.
  • Eat with Joy and Thankfulness: A Letter to my Daughters about Food — Megan at The Boho Mama writes a letter to her daughters about body image and healthy attitudes towards food.
  • Helping Our Children Have Healthy Body Images — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares information about body image, and her now-adult daughter tells how she kept a healthy body image through years of ballet and competitive figure skating.
  • Namaste — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment shares how at barely 6 years old, her daughter has begun to say, “I’m not beautiful.” And while it’s hard to listen to, she also sees it as a sign her daughter is building her self-image in a grassroots kind of way.
  • 3 Activities to Help Instill a Healthy Self-Image in Your Child — Explore the changing ideals of beauty, create positive affirmations, and design a self-image awareness collage. Dionna at Code Name: Mama shares these 3 ideas + a pretty affirmation graphic you can print and slip in your child’s lunchbox.
  • Beautiful, Inside and Out — It took a case of adult-onset acne for Kat of MomeeeZen to find out her parenting efforts have resulted in a daughter that is truly beautiful, inside and out.
  • Mirroring Positive Self Image for Toddlers — Shannon at GrowingSlower reflects on encouraging positive self image in even the youngest members of the family.
  • How I hope to instill a healthy body image in my two girls — Raising daughters with healthy body image in today’s society is no small task, but Xela at The Happy Hippie Homemaker shares how choosing our words carefully and being an example can help our children learn to love their bodies.
  • Self Image has to Come from WithinMomma Jorje shares all of the little things she does to encourage healthy attitudes in her children, but realizes she can’t give them their self images.
  • Protecting the Gift — JW from True Confessions of a Real Mommy wants you to stop thinking you need to boost your child up: they think they are wonderful all on their own.
  • Learning to Love Myself, for my Daughter — Michelle at Ramblings of Mitzy addresses her own poor self-image.
  • Nurturing An Innate Sense of Self — Marisa at Deliberate Parenting shares her efforts to preserve the confidence and healthy sense of self they were born with.
  • Don’t You Love Me, Mommy?: Instilling Self-Esteem in Young Children After New Siblings Arrive — Jade at Seeing Through Jade Glass But Dimly hopes that her daughter will learn to value herself as an individual rather than just Momma’s baby
  • Exercising is FUN — Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work talks about modeling for her children that exercising is FUN and good for body and soul.
  • Poor Little Chicken — Kenna at A Million Tiny Things gets her feathers ruffled over her daughter’s clothing anxiety.
  • Loving the skin she’s in — Mama Pie at Downside Up and Outside In struggles with her little berry’s choice not to celebrate herself and her heritage.
  • Perfect the Way I Am — Erika at Cinco de Mommy struggles — along with her seven-year-old daughter — at telling herself she’s perfect just the way she is.

27 responses to “Carnival of Natural Parenting: Verbs vs. Adjectives

  1. Pingback: October 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Perfect the Way I Am « Cinco de Mommy·

  2. This is something I’m working on. I definitely find myself saying Good Job too much, but I’m getting better about moving away from that habit. I want Gwen to feel good about herself when she works hard for something, not because someone else thinks what she did was good.

  3. Have you read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn? I think you’d really like it. I catch myself saying “I like your picture!” (or whatever), and it takes a conscious effort to describe the drawing instead. I also try to talk about how something is a “challenge,” instead of saying it is “hard,” and how fun it is to tackle challenges. Language really does matter!
    ~Dionna @

    • Yes, I love Alfie Kohn!
      I’ve also been thinking about something they used to say at the daycare I attended as a child. When someone would say that something was easy, they’d always respond, “Easy for some, hard for others,” and they’d point out something that was hard for the child who didn’t understand why someone else couldn’t do whatever the easy thing was.

  4. Pingback: Stories of our Uniqueness | Sesame Seed Designs·

  5. Pingback: Hybrid Rasta Mama: What I Am Is Not Who I Am·

  6. Pingback: Some {BODY} to Love | Kate Wicker·

  7. My son also has a huge amount of words under his belt, but often keeps quiet and watchful with new people so they assume he doesn’t understand the conversation. He understands it all, and will repeat it all back to me once we are home! I am a great believer in the power of labels in creating a box for people. If we want children who are free to be themselves, then avoiding labels replacing them with real interest and genuine questions is the way to go! Great post! Sam

  8. Yes! I can’t tell you how often I fail at remembering this, even though I totally believe it. Thanks so much for the reminder. Perhaps I’l revive my campaign to end the ridiculous practice of giving trophies to everyone who plays even one game in Little League…

  9. this is another one for my “file”. It’s really interesting to hear from someone who actually went through the over-praising years. Your dad cracks me up. That’s a very logical man.. But how great to point that out to you (I feel certain he wasn’t trying to take anything away from you, just to give you persepctive. That’s how it sounded to me.
    My husband and I have had a terrible time not over praising and doing just what you describe… We’ve been so fortunate that the school she is going to shares your phillosophy and last year in nursery school, her teacher even had a class for parents about this.
    So, we try to temper our praise. Now I mostly do both. And like you, our daughter is truly bright and artistic, etc…
    But I understand and completly agree with the downside of over praising. When I first read about it , it was such an “aha”… I get it. Of course.
    And I certainly don’t want that for her.
    I appreciate your description of exactly how you changed what you were going to say about your sons art and what you did say. “that’s a lot of circles…” Great! That helps me think of it differently.
    And I especially like praising the *effort*.
    I also had to check out your Etsy store and have to tell you that what you’re making is so beautiful. (Praising is good for us now, isn’t it?!)

    • I’m glad it spoke to you, as I really wasn’t sure what I should write about. I feel like “self image” is so often a code for “body image,” which we think of as a girl problem. My son sure doesn’t have a body image problem, not yet, anyway (though he is quite distressed that his baby sister “lost her penit”). I do think that labeling children is dangerous, as is projecting our dreams for them onto them. When my son was only a baby, people used to ask me what I hoped he’d be when he grew up…and they looked confused when I said, “Happy!” 🙂

      I agree with Dionna (above) when she mentioned _Unconditional Parenting_ by Alfie Kohn. I also love his _Punished by Rewards_, which I read when I worked in a corporate setting. It revolutionized how I managed people.

      And thanks for the kudos on my etsy shop! Yeah, a little praise doesn’t hurt us grown ups. 🙂 and I really needed it on a day when the toddler was cranking and the baby was cluster feeding and cluster puking. So thank you, really. It made my day.

      • Have you seen this John Lennon Quote:
        When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

        Perfect, right?

  10. I love this: “Kids who think of their intellectual capacity as a fixed quantity tend to avoid challenges.” Such a good reminder. It’s so true that they thrive on conquering their challenges. My (almost 2 year old) daughter has recently started climbing into her carseat by herself. It’s hard for her. It takes forever, especially since she insists on holding onto her toys while she does it! But she said to me, “It’s hard work! But I can do it!” and my heart swelled.

  11. Pingback: Raising a Confident Kid | Radical Ramblings·

  12. Pingback: New Shoes for Mama | Natural Parents Network·

  13. Pingback: Undistorted | Living Peacefully with Children·

  14. Pingback: Sowing seeds of self-love in our children | Heart-Led Parenting·

  15. Pingback: How She’ll See Herself « Rosmarinus Officinalis·

  16. Pingback: Beautiful | Mom Grooves·

  17. Pingback: Going Beyond Being An Example | Old New Legacy·

  18. Pingback: Exercise is FUN! – Promoting a Healthy Self-Image Through Modeling·

  19. Pingback: Helping Our Children Have Healthy Body Images |·

  20. Pingback: The Naked Family | Love Parenting·

  21. I am really working on this one too. Very good and challenging post. The words just so often slip from my mouth. Thank you for sharing!

  22. Such a great post! Very insightful and a good reminder for everyone who is praise happy or who was raised praise happy. I too love Alphie Kohn and try so very hard not to “good job” my daughter to death. It has actually become second nature for me to use other words to encourage and not praise while my husband still struggles. It takes a lot of brain work to get out of the good job habit! Thanks for writing such a thought provokign post!

  23. Pingback: What I Am Is Not Who I Am Hybrid Rasta Mama·

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