Louise called to tell me about an experience she’d had with one of the students she tutors. “Clarissa,” she said, “is a nine-year-old girl whose mother has obviously trained her to say ‘I’m sorry’ every time she makes a mistake. When I first taught her, she said those two words constantly throughout our entire lessons—every time her answer was wrong, every time I had to repeat something.”
“What a terrible feeling,” I said, “when a child has to apologize for the natural mistakes that are unavoidable in the process of learning. By now I’m sure she has the feeling that each time she says ‘I’m sorry,’ she is apologizes for who she IS, not just for the mistakes she makes.”
“I had the same impression,” Louise said, “so I taught her to say ‘Oh, a mistake,’ instead of saying ‘I’m sorry.’ With no tone of self-criticism.”
“How is that working?” I asked.
“She is visibly happier during our lessons. It was also obvious that her mother had pounded in the lesson that she had to say ‘Thank you’ for every good thing that anybody did for her, so she said that phrase to me a lot too.”
“Lots of parents do that. They MAKE their children say ‘Thank you,’ believing—and meaning well—that this approach teaches the child to be grateful. But it doesn’t. It only teaches children a sense of obligation, which they usually resent.”
“So, instead of her saying ‘Thank you’ to me all the time, I taught her to say, ‘How wonderful,’ or ‘How lovely,’ or ‘How fun.’ She likes that a lot better. She’s way more relaxed."
Guilt is not an elevated form of motivation. Using it to teach children is actually harmful. And we can’t force a child to learn genuine gratitude. They learn it as we love them and as they feel happy.
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