Hi Dr Justin,
My 7 year old son has recently started saying things like “I’m dumb or I’m stupid” if he makes a mistake. This might be when trying to sound out a word, or if his behaviour has been redirected. How would you approach this?
To answer your question, I’m going to draw fairly heavily on studies conducted by motivation researchers. I think it is applicable to your son’s challenge, and to many other difficult situations our children (and we) regularly face.
My Son Says He is Dumb
When we are asked to complete a task – like your son reading – we typically show one of three motivations: performance approach, performance avoid, or mastery. The orientation, or approach, we bring to the task has a significant impact on how we feel about attempting it. For example:
A performance approach orientation means we’ll have a go at something because we are reasonably confident we can do it well. You probably find that your son is quite happy to take on reading challenges that aren’t particularly, well… challenging.
A performance avoid orientation means that we shy away from anything we think might lead to failure or mistakes. This particular motivation seems to be what your son is showing in relation to reading unfamiliar words, or if he is asked to change his behaviour. Somewhere in his mind, he feels like he is failing. He verbalises ‘I’m dumb” as a way of justifying his performance, and demonstrating that he shouldn’t keep reading, or to play the ‘victim’ in relation to his actions. ‘I’m dumb’ means I can’t help it. It’s not my fault. There are aspects of me that simply cannot change.
A mastery orientation is seen when we look for tasks that we are going to be challenged by. They’re too tough for us to breeze through, and we’ll probably make loads of mistakes. Yet this is exciting for us because, even though it can be embarrassing when we get it wrong, we love the idea of learning and growth.
Research suggests that people with a performance motivational mindset generally adopt both the approach and avoidance strategies, depending on the circumstances. But they rarely, if ever, adopt a mastery orientation. And research also tells us that the performance and mastery orientations to challenge are about equally distributed.
How it affects behaviour
There’s an old saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The idea is that we can do whatever we put our mind to. The great challenge is that many children don’t recognise this, and many parents don’t teach this to their children.
Studies clearly demonstrate that people with greater ability but a performance mindset will actually perform more poorly over time than will people with less ability but a mastery mindset.
Teaching kids mastery matters
When your son tells you he is dumb or stupid because he can’t spell a word, or because his behaviour needs correcting, the messages you send him can promote one mindset or another. By telling him,
“No you’re not dumb. Look at how smart you are. You read all of those words!”
You actually promote a performance mindset. This happens for a couple of reasons.
- Arguing with your son about his intellect will not change his mind. He’ll move into defensive mode and, whether he says so or not, will actually solidify his position with evidence that he is really dumb.
- Research shows that when we tell someone how smart they are (or how beautiful, or artistic, or talented), they feel a need to protect that reputation. Protecting their reputation (or label) means that they will take on fewer risks and do more of what they feel safe doing, knowing they are competent to a particular level. But they stop stretching themselves.
There is something else you can do that may help much more. I recommend that you tell him:
“You feel embarrassed when you can’t work out the words sometimes, don’t you.” “Reading can be really tough sometimes can’t it.”
By recognising the emotions he is feeling, your son will feel understood. Spend some time on those emotions. Then you might say something like:
“Did you know that everyone has some challenges and difficulties with words sometimes. It’s pretty normal. It even happens to me when I read some of my books.”
This helps your son recognise that not only is what he is feeling and experiencing able to be named and described, but it is normal, and it can be controlled.
If your son is like most people, once he feels understood and realises that he’s not the only one who has these kinds of struggles, he will calm down. Once calm, he will be teachable. (While he is upset, defensive, or frustrated, he is unlikely to be teachable in any way.) At this point you can share other feelings…
"It makes me sad when you say you're dumb"
Additionally, you might find it helpful to ask him questions:
"Why do you think you're stupid?"
"If you want to get better at something, what do you need to do?"
"I love trying new things and making mistakes. Can you think of why?"
These question will guide your son to a recognition that he is progressing and learning. And they will orient him away from believing there are labels that define him. They will promote a mastery, rather than a performance, mindset.
Beyond these ideas, I suggest that when your son does something easily, you point it out and then tell him it’s time to try something harder where he’ll make mistakes because that more fun. Point out that challenges make us better at things. And lastly, be a model of attempting new things, failing, and putting new learning into practise.