Describe,  Don’t  Judge  or  Label ✰✰✰✰

It is a common misconception that people like praise. If we look at how we react to compliments, we’ll see that we often feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Why do we make excuses or deny compliments such as “You’re hair always looks so perfect” or “You’re such a good singer”? We feel good, but we also doubt their judgment. We might say, “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect” or “Good singer?” Praise often sounds insincere.

Sometimes our discomfort comes from feeling pressured to perform well the next time, since someone is judging us. Compliments like “You’re such a good cook, you should open a gourmet restaurant” might leave us focusing on our weakness (which is really our human nature). “Great! Now every meal has to be a gourmet one! I was planning beans and franks tomorrow night!”

What all these compliments have in common are their judgmental words: best, good, perfect, or labels like gourmet. These words add pressure and make people (children included) think others have unrealistic expectations of them. People who give compliments usually don’t mean to pressure or judge. They are trying to make the person feel good. Nevertheless, the way we word a compliment or encouragement greatly influences how others receive it. Here are some examples of common statements of praise and the resulting self-talk: 

        “You’re such a good boy!” “Am I really good?” “Do I have to be good all the time?” “What if I’m not good? Will you still love me?”
        “You did a good job.” “You might think it’s a good job. I know I  didn’t   do this . . . and this . . .” “I wonder what I did that was good so I can do it again.”
        “You got an ‘A’! You’re such a good student.” “What would you have said if I didn’t get an ‘A’?” “Am I only a good student or person if I get good grades?” 
To  use  the  language  of  encouragement,  remember  one  word—DESCRIBE. 
Describe children’s feelings, efforts, progress or improvements, skills or qualities shown, the value of the act, or how it was helpful. 

When we use descriptive words, there’s no question about our sincerity. It’s factual, so there’s nothing to dispute. It doesn’t add unrealistic pressure because we aren’t judging or labeling. As a result, people are more likely to take the comment in a positive way, feeling good about themselves and their efforts. Using this skill, let’s look at three praise statements, the child’s self-talk, an encouraging alternative, and the likely result for the child.


Chapter 4: Self-Esteem Toolset                                                                    97


          1.   Praise: “You’re such a big boy! You can go potty all by yourself!”

Child’s self-talk: “Gee, I don’t know if I can always be a ‘big boy.’ Sometimes I like to keep playing without stopping to do this potty thing!” 

Encouragement: “Hey! You made it to the potty, got your pants down by yourself, and remembered to flush the toilet! I bet it feels good to be able to go potty all by yourself!”

Child’s self-talk: “I really did do a lot this time! I’m getting better at this potty thing!”

          2.   Praise: “You did a good job on your project.”

Child’s self-talk: “Well, I won’t know that until I get a grade.”

Encouragement: “Gee! I can tell you spent a lot of time on your project! The writing is neat and easy to read and the color codes on your map make it easy to follow.”

Child’s self-talk: “Yeah, I did a pretty good job on that project! I’m glad I decided to use color. I’ll have to remember that next time.”

          3.   Praise: “That was a great game even though your team lost. You played really good today:”

Child’s self-talk: “Right, you think it was great. It wasn’t a great game—we lost! You must not have been watching or you would have seen me miss that goal in the second quarter.”

Encouragement: “Boy, you really played your heart out, didn’t you? You came so close to getting that goal in the second quarter and really poured it on at the end! I can tell you’re disappointed the team lost, but I could really see how much you’ve all improved! You’re passing the ball more, taking the ball further up the field, and working together as a team.”

Child’s self-talk: “I can’t believe I missed that goal, but I did do my best. I didn’t notice before, but we were passing more. We are improving! If we keep it up, maybe we’ll do better next time.”

If you doubt that people make these self-talk comments, pay attention to your self-talk the next time you receive praise and encouragement. When we give others a compliment and they argue or deny it, chances are we used unhelpful praise. If we use descriptive encouragement and they disagree, don’t argue, just say, “Well that’s how I saw it. You don’t have to agree.”

A Personal Story. When Amber was about 4, she showed me an art project she had just finished. When I saw it, I said, “Wow! Look at that! You found the construction paper on your own, cut all those triangles out by yourself, and glued them in that neat shape! Did you have fun?” She replied, enthusiastically, “Yeah! I’m going to make another one!” As she skipped down the stairs I could hear her singing a song to herself: “I’m a good artist. I’m a good artist.” I was so pleased she was telling this to herself, instead of needing me to tell her.

Encouragement usually takes more effort and more words. We have to be observant and sincere. It’s a lot harder than tossing out halfhearted one-word judgments. Unlike other wordy statements, such as criticism and lectures, others don’t grow tired of hearing positive comments that don’t add pressure. They keep listening.



Always say, “Thank you.” Even if people are just doing their job or are expected to do something anyway, don’t take their cooperation or helpfulness for granted.

            “I bet Brian had fun playing with you. You gave him lots of turns playing with your toys.”
            “Thanks for playing quietly while I took a nap. I feel more rested and happy.”
            “Thanks for helping with the dishes. I know it’s not your favorite thing to do. I don’t like to do it either. It really helps us finish quickly so we have more time to do what we really want to do.”

98                                                                                        The Parent’s Toolshop


At the end of a descriptive encouragement statement, we can add one or two words that sum up the quality it took to accomplish that act.

    “What a day! We’ve been on the road for hours! You kept yourself busy with puzzles, cards, and coloring. What a trooper!”
    “When Tony was here you let him play with your toys even though he doesn’t know how to share. You taught him how to ride your little bike. And you were gentle with him, even when he pulled your hair. Now that’s tolerant!”
    “That little girl didn’t seem to know anyone. I bet it made her feel really good when you asked her to play on the seesaw. That’s what being friendly is all about!” 

Remember, we aren’t  judging the behavior, pressuring, or labeling the child; we are describing a skill, value, or quality the behavior showed.



Labeling children is common. Because children act a certain way, we label them as though they are the behavior. Labels, whether positive or negative, are limiting and discouraging. Labels influence how others think about children and, therefore, how they treat them.

When children hear a negative label, they see the label as their identity or the role they should play. People often recognize only behaviors that fit the label. “See, there you go again. You’re so mean.” Since everyone expects them to act this way, what motivation do they have to change or improve? Even normal behaviors can be turned into negative labels, such as “the terrible two’s,” “rebellious teen,” or “shy.” When such normal behaviors get negative labels, children think there is something wrong with them. Discouraged, they give up and live down to the label. 

But let’s not ignore positive labels, such as bright, athletic, angel, or big girl. Any label, even a positive one, limits a child. The bright child be devastated by an average grade. Athletes might hesitate to pursue academics or music or feel pressured to be good in all sports. An angel might fear making mistakes, having a bad day, or expressing natural, negative feelings. A big girl probably feels pressure to always act grown up and guilty when she acts like a baby, which is normal at times. (“If she feels guilty then she’ll change her behavior,” you say? Yes, guilt can change behavior, but there are effective ways to change behavior without unhealthy guilt. We learn effective alternatives in Chapter 5, “Cooperation Toolset,” and the definition of unhealthy guilt in Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset.”)

Labels are something we carry throughout life. When we believe a label, we become the label. We feel pressure to live up or down to the expectation, which limits our potential to improve or be humanly imperfect. When we get to this section in my parenting classes, we discuss our experience as a sibling or only child and the roles or labels we accepted. While some of us overcome these labels once we leave home, the label often reappears every time we are around our family. Parents have said, “I’m 50 years old and everyone still calls me ‘the baby.’” “My brother was always Mom’s favorite. They always show pictures of his kids and brag about his wonderful career. Our kids hardly even get a holiday greeting, let alone any attention when they come to visit. I feel like a constant disappointment to them, no matter how successful I am.”


Chapter 4: Self-Esteem Toolset                                                                    99

A Graduate’s Story. 
“I was talking to my sister about the sibling class I was taking. I told her that 
I realized how much my upbringing affected my self-esteem. I had always scored well on intellectual tests, but was never able to succeed academically. I told her how much I admired her for finishing  college.  She  told  me  that  she  had  always  admired  my  popularity.  Then  she  told  me something I hadn’t remembered. She said our mother used to tell us that I was the “pretty” one and she was the “smart” one. Suddenly, it was clear to me. We each felt it was our “role” to be pretty or smart. We were expected to fit those roles, even if we had the potential to be different.

“Okay,” we might say, “I guess I’ve been guilty of occasionally labeling my children.” Maybe our children have put themselves in roles or perhaps others (peers or teachers) have. What can we do to help our children become more than their role—to become whole again?2

  • Point out times when people behave differently from their role or label. Instead of saying For once you weren’t bossy,” describe what the child did, “I noticed the way you let Brad pick the game he wanted to play.”
  • Create situations that can show children their full potential. Say “Sure, you can walk on the curb,” instead of “No, you’re such a klutz, you’ll probably fall.” Instead of rolling our eyes as we watch her stumble and fall while playing hopscotch, say “I was watching you play hopscotch! How do you play? . . . It’s hard to hop on one foot like that, huh?”
  • Speak positively about them to others. Many parents talk about their children as though they weren’t there. If children hear what we say to others, it makes more of an impact because they think they weren’t supposed to hear it. Make an extra effort to tell a positive story to others about times when they behaved differently from their label. When Grandma calls, skip the story of Mark getting sent to the principal’s office—again. Be sure to tell her, though, about something positive Mark did that week (even if it’s the only time you can remember). We might tell others about the problems we have, but not when our children can hear. Also, be careful only to share this information with people who will treat the child with unconditional love and not judge or criticize. We don’t want to reinforce labels others have for our children.
  • Restate the labels/roles you hear others use. Other children and adults may use labels that limit our children. Or our children might put themselves in roles or label themselves. We can respond in ways that put the quality in a positive context. For example, when a lady at the store says, “My, isn’t she shy,” we can respond, “Sue speaks up when she feels comfortable talking.”
  • Model the behavior you want to see. If a child is a “smart mouth,” be sure to speak in respectful ways, even when angry. If children lie, share your feelings the next time you are tempted to lie but choose not to. 
  • Remind children of times they didn’t behave according to their role. If children have a hard time resolving conflicts without aggression, remind them of a time when it took a lot of effort, but they worked things out. Be careful not to word this like a guilt trip: “Why did you hit him? You know better than that! Can’t you be civil?” Instead, we can reassure them when they’re getting aggressive: “Hey! I know you’re really angry with John. So angry you feel like punching him! It’s hard, but I’ve seen you control your anger before. When Tom took your toy and broke it you were so angry! But you didn’t deck him. You left before you did something you would regret. What can you do now?” We can physically direct the children while we speak, not just stand there commenting while they pound each other. (For more ideas about “bullies and victims,” see the “Common Sibling Issues” section of Chapter 8, “Problem-Solving Toolset.”)
  • Watch your thoughts. Even if parents never use labels and roles in their speech, their thoughts can still affect their children. Words, looks, attitudes, and tone of voice can express parents’ expectations and beliefs. The first step in changing children’s roles is to change our thoughts. Believe children can be different, whole, and can reach their potential. Look for the positive qualities a negative label can have. Use positive words when talking to children or about them. We will be more encouraging, our children will
100                                                                                      The Parent’s Toolshop

feel less discouraged, and will start displaying the positive qualities more often. Here is a list of negative labels and their positive qualities:

“Into everything” 
Knows what he or she wants, has leadership potential
Enthusiastic, outspoken
Carefree, busy, creative
Knows own likes and dislikes, has specific tastes  
Curious, eager to learn
Internal, imaginative
Committed, opinionated, knows what he or she wants, sticks to it
Energetic, enthusiastic, vivacious

When we release children from roles, we help them see their full potential and teach them skills that help them feel whole and valuable. 

Sticks and stones may break our bones and names really can hurt us. Our words can have a powerful effect on another person’s life.


Stress  Personal  Achievement,  Not  Competition

Praise and ego-esteem are based on unhealthy competition—comparing oneself to others and trying to be better than them. When we compare ourselves to others, someone will always be better and someone will always be worse. Encouragement focuses on doing one’s best, even if that best effort isn’t perfect or even better than another’s efforts. There are two ways parents can be more encouraging:(1) avoiding comparisons and (2) promoting only healthy competition.



Parents often praise children by comparing them to another child. Negative comparisons can make children feel inferior and can discourage them. For example, “You should save your money the way Jack does. He saved enough to buy a video game.” This child might now believe he is a poor saver and probably always  will be. He may resent his brother for outdoing him and for having a prized toy he doesn’t have. Even if the brother did not contribute to this exchange, it still increases the competition and rivalry between them.

Positive comparisons can also be problematic. “It sure is nice to have at least one neat kid. Your sister is such a slob,” can leave the praised child with one of several unhelpful feelings. She could feel sorry for her sister or feel better than her sister in a conceited way. Or she could feel pressure to always be better than her sister. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in their book Siblings Without Rivalry, offer the following rule of thumb:

Whatever you want to tell this child can be said directly, without any reference to another child. The key word is described.

Encourage the child’s effort instead of comparing the child or the effort to another. Using descriptive encouragement in the above situations, we might say the following:


Chapter 4: Self-Esteem Toolset                                                                  101
“If you’d like a video game, you can save some of your money.”
“Your room looks so neat. Not only did you pick up all the dirty clothes, but you even dusted and organized your shelves. I bet it feels good to spend time in there.”

Even when parents don’t compare them, children may compare themselves as they compete for a place in the family or peer group. If one child is good in athletics, another child might believe that role is taken and pursue another talent. If one child is better than another in athletics, music, dance, or academics, it doesn’t mean another child shouldn’t pursue that interest. When children compare them-selves, respond without validating the comparison:

Child: “Susan’s such a good violin player. I’ll never be as good as she is.”

Parent: “How Susan plays has nothing to do with whether you should play or not. If you want to keep playing the violin, do it! You seem to enjoy it and you’ve improved a lot this year . . . I remember when you first tried that hard sonata. Last night when I heard you playing it, I actually stopped drying the dishes and just listened. It sounded so beautiful.”

Child: “My kite didn’t break because I took care of mine. Jimmy’s is broken already!”

Parent: “Jimmy knows how to take care of his things, too. Jimmy, you must be disappointed your kite broke. What happened? . . . Oh . . . I bet you’ll avoid those trees next time, huh?”

It is natural to notice differences between children. One child’s strength can be another’s weakness. Instead of trying to make children the same as each other or into what we consider ideal children, we can appreciate their differences.

Families who focus on competition actually increase the differences and resentment among family members. Families who value individuality and model cooperation have children who are more confident and cooperative with each other.



Comparisons are never helpful; competition, when used in healthy ways, can be. Many people think the only way to prove they are good  is to compete and win. In the workplace, some adults compete with cutthroat tactics. At home, parents encourage their children to race, to motivate them into action. “The first one to _______ wins!” Of course, the youngest or weakest children usually lose, which only discourages them more. Racing differs from seeing if we can do something fast with no winners. “Let’s sing the clean-up song and see how many toys we can pick up before we’re done.” If children insist on racing, encourage them to level the playing field by giving less-experienced children a head start or encouraging them to do their best without racing.

A Personal Story. Chris, being the fast runner that he is, likes to race. He likes to challenge himself and have some reference for how fast he ran. When we take walks, he’ll say, “I’m going to run around the block. I’ll see if I can get back to you by the time you get to the corner.”

Amber is four years younger and dislikes racing. But she has a healthy, noncompetitive, self-motivated attitude and is usually willing to try new things. I’ve handled Chris’ racing challenges several ways. I have always focused on the process of an activity, rather than the outcome. If Chris wants to race, I sometimes say, “A race takes two people. Amber, do you want to race?” If she declines, I suggest Chris just run by himself. Other times, I’ll say, “If you want to run, Amber, go ahead. You don’t have to race, just have fun.”

When Chris gloats or teases her for losing, I tell him I expect him to be a good sport and be respectful and encouraging to the other players. “If you want Amber to keep racing with you, give her some encouragement.” He usually describes her improvements and thanks her for racing.

102                                                                                      The Parent’s Toolshop
Competition can be healthy or unhealthy. In unhealthy competition, the pressure to win is more important than the fun of playing or the value of the skills we learn in the process. The motivation to win reinforces the desire to be the best or better than others. It is discouraging to lose, because winning is the goal. Consequently, unhealthy competition promotes selfishness and poor sportsmanship.
A Personal Comment. A local newspaper reporter did a feature story about select sports teams and how some emphasize winning at the cost of equal participation.3 I was shocked at some of the comments made by coaches and the clubs’ official rules. For example, a third-grade team’s coach said, “We don’t want to lose a ball game because we played kids equally. It’s sort of like a business: I’m trying to put the best product on the floor.” He views these eight- and nine-year-old children as products! The official statement of that ball club says, “While the commitment of [the club] is to develop talent, the parents and players must realize that [the club] will play to win . . . there is no guarantee regarding playing time.” Parents enroll their children, who are obviously good enough to make the team, so the children can improve their skills. Instead, some children warm the bench, which doesn’t improve their skills at all! The coach’s response to this comment was, “At some point in time, kids have to understand they’re not good enough.” Can you imagine how many children would give up a sport before their prime after hearing this! When the reporter interviewed a dozen children, they seemed to have their priorities much more in line than the adults. They all said they favored playing over winning. One girl said, “If I had my choice of playing five games or winning one, I’d rather play five. I think it’s more fun to play than it is to win.” It makes me wonder, “Who are these kids playing for—their coaches’ reputation and prestige (or maybe their parents’) or to build skills, self-confidence, and a healthy attitude about competition?”
Healthy competition focuses on doing one’s best. We only need to compete with ourselves. Those who give a strong effort and strive to improve themselves will often advance without taking someone else down in the process. If learning or improving is the goal, we always reach it. If we happen to win, it’s icing on the cake. Healthy competition in work or team sports promotes teamwork, working together for a common goal—to participate and do one’s best. Team members learn to support each other, work together, and do one’s individual best to help the team. 
Unhealthy competition. Winning, being the best, or being better than others is more important than having fun or learning skills. It adds pressure.
Healthy competition. Doing one’s best, having fun, and learning skills in the process. 

In their enthusiasm, some parents model poor sportsmanship when they stand on the sidelines yelling insults at referees who penalize their children. These parents teach their children to make excuses or to find someone to blame for their mistakes. Parents who yell negative advice such as “Come on! Wake up!” or “It’s about time” are a pain in the neck to their children and an irritation to other parents who want to be encouraging.


Chapter 4: Self-Esteem Toolset                                                                  103


A Personal Story. At one of Chris’ soccer games, a father kept yelling criticisms at his son, thinking he would motivate the boy. His father’s nitpicking continually distracted the boy and irritated the other parents. Finally, in the middle of a play, the boy stopped and yelled, “Just leave me alone!” The father probably thought his son was “talking back,” but many of the other parents silently appreciated someone speaking up to the father.

If we must yell during a game, let’s make it encouraging: “Yes!” “Way to go!” “That’s it!” “Nice kick!” “Keep it up!” If we see something that needs improvement and just can’t keep quiet, tell children what to do in a positive way: “Spread out!” “Work together!” “Center it!” “Run!” After an event, let’s restrict our comments to descriptions of how the child or team did well, made an effort, or improved. Don’t focus on the score or outcome. If children bring this up, acknowledge their positive or negative feelings and include some comment about effort or improvement.

A Personal Story. Sometimes it is really hard to find something positive to say in our comments. Amber only played soccer for one season. It was obvious, with each game, that this was probably not her cup of tea. She was clueless about the purpose of the game and her foot never touched the ball through the first half of the season.

Over time, she improved, but very little. She ran a little faster each game. She still planted herself in her defensive position and didn’t move—but she did stick her foot out, now and then, when the ball came near. It was painful to watch these games from the sidelines. My husband, my parents, and I wanted so much to cheer her on, but struggled to find anything positive to say. We were thrilled if she did something we could encourage. After each game, I tried to offer several positive (but honest) descriptive comments. My father still chuckles when he reminds me of my comments after one game. I enthusiastically said, “Your foot touched the ball three times today! You almost caught up with the pack! And I saw how well you defended your spot. No one was going to get the ball into your space!”


Be  Gentle  with  Mistakes

The biggest difference between perfectionists and healthy achievers is the way they view and handle mistakes. Perfectionists are rarely satisfied because their best is never perfect. Most had perfectionist parents, who wanted to be perfect parents with perfect children. Now as adults, these parents may not realize how their comments reinforce a child’s insecurities or add pressure. When they say things like “You could do better if . . .” or “I know you can do it,” their children believe that they are never good enough, no matter how hard they try.

A Graduate’s Story. My mother would always remake my bed and rehang my clothes after I left for school. I could never figure out what was wrong with it. To me, my bed looked like an army bunk, tight enough to bounce a coin. I tried doing it the way she said, but despite my efforts, my mother was never satisfied. I finally figured, “What’s the point, it’s never good enough anyway,” and stopped trying. To this day, I hate to make beds and have to force myself to hang up clothes.

One of the scariest trends facing parents today is the frightening number of teen suicides. Teens who seem to have it all are literally killing themselves because they can never reach unrealistic goals (their parents’, society’s, and their own). Teens see how specialized jobs have become. They think they must quickly find their niche—one way they can be perfect. If they have a failed love affair, they wallow in despair. But who has found the perfect love or the perfect niche in their teens? Teens who are naturally smart and don’t have to work hard to succeed can actually be a high suicide risk. Because they rarely fail, they might fall apart when they make mistakes.

Children who have to work hard for their achievements, making mistakes and occasionally failing along the way, often handle disappointment better. Their mistakes and struggles strengthen their character. They are healthy achievers: good self-starters, ambitious, courageous, and willing to take risks. They build on their strengths and work to improve their weaknesses. They try to do their best and strive for excellence, but don’t expect perfection. If their best only warrants a “C” grade, they might be disappointed, but they know they did their best and learn ways to improve the next time.

So what can we do as parents to avoid perfectionism or help a child who is too critical?



I often hear teens complain, “I want to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. My parents are always telling me about what they  learned, instead of letting me learn lessons myself.” A teen’s desire for independence is a healthy sign of maturity and confidence—“I can do it myself.” When our babies wanted to walk, did we stop them? We couldn’t protect them from every fall and


104                                                                                                  The Parent’s Toolshop


thank goodness we didn’t! (We further discuss parents’ legitimate concerns about the dangerous risks that come with teenage independence in Chapter 6, “Independence Toolset.”)

We need to be careful that we don’t protect our children from non-dangerous mistakes or go around behind them correcting what they’ve done. It is discouraging when others point out and correct mistakes. If we are always there to rescue our children, they will never learn to stand on their own. Mistakes show us what not to do in the future, which is often a valuable lesson.

When children make a mistake, don’t belittle their emotions, “It’s no big deal. You’ll get over it.” Recognize what they might be feeling, “It can be frustrating to work on a project so long and not have it turn out like you hoped.” Help them view the mistake as an important part of the learning process. Don’t lecture or point everything out for them. Instead, ask questions to help them see what they learned. “What happened? Do you have any idea why?” “How do you feel about it?” “What did you learn?” Reassure them, “Hey, we still love you—a lot.”

 Some mistakes are unavoidable. Correcting and learning from our mistakes is most important. In truth, there are no mistakes—everything is a lesson. 

In the book Active Parenting, author Michael Popkin defines courage as “the willingness to take a known risk for a known purpose.” The known purpose is what we hope to accomplish. The known risk is the worst that could happen. Often, the risk is simply to try, possibly fail, but learn some valuable skills in the process. Courage is different from impulsiveness or disregard for the risks; courage is not blind. The key element of courage is knowing that the purpose is worth the risk. Truly courageous people are not without fear; they just don’t let the fear prevent them from taking educated, planned risks. Courageous people ask themselves, “If I fail, what will I have accomplished in trying?” Even if they don’t get the expected results, they realize they have gained knowledge and have stretched themselves further than they thought they could.



When I think of someone who was not afraid of mistakes and knew how to learn from them, I think of Thomas Edison. He never viewed his failures as mistakes, because they always taught him some piece of information that was helpful later. Had he not been willing to take risks, we would be without many modern inventions.

A Personal Experience. At a conference I attended, H. Stephen Glenn, author of Developing Capable People, shared a story about Thomas Edison and the risks of letting mistakes affect another person’s self-esteem. The night before Edison was to present his new invention, the electric light bulb, to the press and public, his assistant accidentally broke the only working bulb. They had spent all day making this bulb and stayed up all night remaking a new one. The next day, he handed the bulb to his assistant for safe keeping. “Why did you let him hold it?”, others asked him, “Weren’t you afraid he’d break it again?” Edison responded, “There was more at stake than a light bulb; affirmation and trust are more important. After what he did, who could I trust more to hold on tight?”