Over the years, many of my clients have asked, “Why did you want to be “Dr. Sam?” While it is true that my mom often said to me that my handwriting was atrociously sloppy so I should be a Doctor, the real answer is that our Family Doctor started calling me “Dr. Sam” when I was 3 years old. I recall really liking the way that sounded and seeing the sparkle in his eyes when he called me that name.
One of the most powerful tools we have as parents, siblings, teachers, community leaders and therapists is the way we use language. Negative language or criticism, by itself, can damage a child’s self-esteem. While it is true that young people should learn how to handle criticism, children also need to hear what they are doing right.
Let’s take an early life scenario as an example. When Susie is 11 months old, she is trying to learn how to walk. Let’s imagine that we have two adults (or older siblings), one on each side of Susie and encouraging her to walk between the 2 of them. One has their arms wide and saying come on, Susie walk to me; you can do it.” If Susie does take all 3 or 4 steps, there is much cheering, hugging and obvious joy. Even if Susie should fall down in her attempt to walk, one might say, “That’s ok, pick yourself up; let’s keep trying.” Compare that to a scenario where Susie is learning to walk and she falls down and one says, “Oh my you are really dumb; don’t even try to walk. You’ll never do it.”
Of course, we see how ridiculous it would be for anyone to be so cruel and belittling to a child. And some may say, “Well, sure we should be encouraging to really little kids, but we have to get those kids toughened up as they age.” There is a kernel of wisdom in that, but all of us are little children when we are learning new tasks (learning to drive, learning to be safe, learning how to make friends, learning algebraic equations, learning new software programs. We all want to be encouraged and not discouraged when learning any task.
Let’s conclude by paraphrasing Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help; though little Mae Mobley has some genuine challenges ahead, she will always remember the mantra, “You are smart; you are kind; you are important.”