It’s Not Just Genetic: The Behaviors Our Kids Inherit


By Staff Writer Published on August 14, 2014

Work Hard

For years, parents were told to offer feedback to their children in the form of positive praise. But a string of recent studies suggests that when praise is focused on ingrained traits, like being smart or pretty, rather than on a child’s work ethic, parents inadvertently teach their kids not to persist through difficult tasks.

That’s a problem, because even the smartest kids will eventually encounter subject areas they’ll need to fail at for a while before approaching mastery. After all, that’s what learning is, and your child needs to get used to that feeling. In fact, praising innate traits actually lowers confidence, because it tells them that when a task is bizarrely difficult for them, there must be something fundamentally wrong with them.

So instead of praising traits, instead take the time to offer much more descriptive praise, especially around the concept of hard work. For example, rather than saying: “You did so great on that test! You’re so smart.” Try: “I’m so proud of how well you did on that test. You’ve really worked hard to master long division. I’m so impressed with the way you stuck with it, even when the going got tough.” The more specific you can be, the deeper your child will understand and internalize the hard work associated with success, and the more likely that’ll become a lifelong habit.

And of course, make sure that you model hard work, whether you finally pursue that master’s degree you’ve always dreamed of or persist in training yourself for jogging two loops around the block. The harder you push yourself, the more you will emphasize to your child just how important stick-to-itiveness is to achieving your goals.

Listen Actively

As anyone who has taken a three-year-old to a grocery store knows, kids don’t arrive pre-packaged with good manners. And while most children are certainly sweet, they need help understanding both their own complex feelings and those of others. Modeling active listening as a parent can really help on both of these fronts, and it will emphasize to your child the importance of becoming an active listener.

Active listening can be as simple as saying, “I hear you,” though it’s even more effective when you repeat back what your child has expressed by saying something like, “I think you’re saying ______…Is that correct?” Listening in this way will show your child that you really are paying attention and that you care, while also prompting them to stop and reflect.

This is also something you can guide them into doing directly by asking them what they’re feeling and why they think they’re feeling that way. If you use a polite manner, phrases and tone as you do so, you’ll encourage polite interaction as well.

These are all things your child will carry into their interactions with you, with other adults, and with their peers, so that they will in turn become the kind of active listeners that thrive in the classroom and far beyond.

Embrace Curiosity and Play

In today’s test-centric classroom where even recess is constantly on the chopping block, play is quickly falling by the wayside in lieu of quiz and test preparation. Unfortunately, this leaves little time for creative and discovery-based pursuits. This is ironic, as these are the very skills that students will need in an increasingly competitive workforce. That’s why it’s urgent that both curiosity and play are a priority in your house, whether that means buying your child a science kit, enrolling in maker classes together, or simply setting aside time for play every day.

You’ll further drive the importance of curiosity and play at home by modeling associated behaviors yourself. Take art classes, make time for your band to practice, attend lectures, learn to knit, or go on nature walks with a guidebook. Indulging your own curiosity and interests will teach your child as they grow that they should always take time for self-discovery and creativity.

This may not seem like a big deal when they’re two and are entirely egocentric, but it becomes almost urgent as they grow and must navigate an increasingly stressful and demanding school experience. Keep that intellectual curiosity alive in yourself, and you’ll keep it alive in your children, too.

The Takeaway

Despite how it may seem sometimes, our kids watch and listen to just about everything we do. In emphasizing the importance of certain behaviors rather than others, you’re sure to set them on a very happy path indeed. Think about the person you want to be and the person you want your child to be, and challenge yourself to be that person. Good luck!