How to talk to nurture your child’s self esteem

As a writer, words mean the world to me, and I try to be aware of the kind of words I use with my children.

Recently, I’ve picked up some communication skills through the workshops I’ve been organising, as well as through this book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (affiliate link). Here are 6 tips I’d like to share with you.


1. Watch out for subtle blaming words

Instead of “what did you do,” which already assumes that the child has done something bad, try “what happened,” which is neutral and expresses concern, and allows the child the space and time to give his side of the story.

2. Don’t say “You’ll never learn!”

First of all this statement cannot be true – humans were born and created to learn, and yes some things are learnt the hard way, but still at least we do learn at some point. When a child hears this phrase frequently used on him, it will harm his sense of self worth, and hinder him from developing a growth mindset.

3. Watch your tone of voice when you’re coaching.

Are you getting agitated and losing your patience by the minute? Take a break and switch to a different activity – come back to it when you feel you’re ready to tackle it with your child.

Here I’d like to share my experience learning piano with my son. We enrolled in MYC a year ago and I found it’s been quite a fun way for younger kids to learn music. It’s parent-accompanied and the parent who accompanies the child is also expected to practise with him at home. There were a few sessions where I got upset with him, and it showed in the way I was impatient with him (both in class and at home) while practising. During that period, his interest in attending classes started to wane. And I too, felt like throwing in the towel.

Thankfully, I gradually learnt to keep my cool during practice, reminding myself that he’s still a child, and that improvement sometimes takes longer to show up. Since this change happened within me, he’s started playing the piano better, and enjoying it a whole lot more, too. 🙂

4. Don’t say “This is easy.”

It puts pressure on a child and when the child does it, he’s able to do something easy. And when he doesn’t, he can’t even do something so simple. It’s lose-lose.

We used to think that when we told a child something was “easy,” we were encouraging him. We realise now that by saying, “Try it, it’s easy” we do him no favor. If he succeeds in doing something “easy,” he feels he hasn’t accomplished much. If he fails, then he’s failed to do something simple.

If on the other hand we say, “It’s not easy” or “That can be hard,” he gives himself another set of messages. If he succeeds, he can experience the pride of having done something difficult. If he fails, he can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his task was a tough one. – Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

5. Describe what you see he has done.

“You managed to fix the tiles into a dinosaur structure – and all by yourself too!” Notice I did not use the word “good job” or “amazing” or “you’re so clever” anywhere. (Now I know it’s hard to erase these words completely from our vocabulary because it’s quite entrenched in our culture to say such things. My guess is that most of us grew up hearing these words! It won’t be an overnight thing but change begins from awareness. Catch yourself saying the wrong things, tweak it intentionally, and celebrate small steps.)

6. Acknowledge effort

If he got a spelling word wrong, try not to focus on the lost mark. You can, however, acknowledge the mistake and make sure he knows where he went wrong. But also affirm him for mastering the other nine words, and for making an effort. Say something like “You managed to get 9 out of 10 words correct! I can see that it’s because you put in the effort to learn and practise.

But what if the child got nine words wrong? Allow him to learn at his pace and work together to understand what went wrong. Maybe it’s a particular letter / word type he struggles with. Whatever it is, don’t condemn him to a life of doom – “If you don’t get full marks next time, you’re going to end up sweeping the streets!!”

Acknowledge his feelings and give him a chance to problem-solve. A simple “I see that you’re feeling disappointed at the spelling test. How do you think we can help you improve?” Allow him to come up with his own ideas and don’t throw or reject any of them. After you have a list, decide together which idea is most workable and focus on doing that.

Even as adults, we need room to grow and we thrive when we are entrusted with responsibilities and are trusted to do the job well. Do you agree?

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  1. says

    This is very relevant to me. I have the book too, but somehow, the advice didn’t sink deep enough. Have to re-read the book and internalise the good suggestions given. You rightly pointed out the negative actions and words that creep up so easily to any parent. Just over the CNY visitation season, a distant relative talked to me about her teenage son’s bad behaviour. I was surprised to hear the usually quiet boy stood up and defended himself in front of us, saying that his mom doesn’t acknowledge his efforts and always pick on the part he didn’t manage to achieve. That was a wake-up call for me as well.
    Mary H recently posted..[Review] Celebrate CNY with Sea Apple cheongsam dressMy Profile

    • June says

      Hi Mary, thanks for leaving a note and sharing that snippet with me. It’s there hidden in the depths of our minds and hearts, isn’t it, that ability to be critical and forgetfulness when it comes to pointing out the good things. Perhaps it’s a bit of culture, but I suspect it’s mostly experience, with our own folks. The good part is that once we’re aware, it becomes possible to switch and change. We just need to give ourselves room to grow too, as parents. I’m no perfect parent, but I find taking small steps is the key. It’s like practising violin – often out of tune and rhythm at first, but over time, we get more skillful. 🙂

  2. says

    All of your tips are completely pinning my heart. You did a great job finding these words to encourage parents in nurturing our kids self esteem. I really do appreciate it as I am also a parent struggling everyday with changes and adjustments. This will surely help us a lot. Thank you so much.

    If you would be interested, I hope I could share a blog too about parenting. The link is on the website field. Thank you.
    Michelle recently posted..Financial Planning for RetirementMy Profile

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