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Absolutely Positive

How positive affirmation can (and can’t) help your kids.

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In the 1990s, Saturday Night Live featured a skit called “Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley,” in which Stuart (played by Al Franken) would look in the mirror and say to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” We laughed then, but maybe Stuart was on to something. Fast-forward to today, and videos are trending of dads prompting their daughters and sons to repeat positive messages in the mirror, such as “I work hard,” “I am kind,” and “I am strong.”

It seems to have started last September, when Ron Alston, Jr., a personal trainer and coach from northern Virginia, uploaded a video to Facebook of himself speaking positive statements to his three-year-old daughter, Aliyah. Alston does this each morning as part of their regular routine, and he wanted to show his family. “My dad used to do something similar with me and I knew he would see it,” Alston says, who is also founder of the Destined for Greatness Movement (dfgmovement.com).

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Now 18 million views, hundreds of shares, and 390,000 comments later, it seems Alston’s video sparked a movement. Websites like TheScene.com have produced a version with multiple dads, and Alston has received messages from all over the world from people who have adapted the practice for their own lives.

Do positive affirmations really work to build kids” confidence and help them grow into responsible adults? Experts say yes, but it takes more than just speaking in front of a mirror. If you want to incorporate more positive affirmation in your home, repeat the following

“I Will Be Honest”

Positive affirmation, in order to be truly effective in growing a child’s confidence, needs to be “in line with someone’s belief system and how they feel about themselves,” says Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, founder and managing director of The Child & Family Therapy Center at Lowry. “If a kid is teeny tiny, then don’t teach him to say, ‘I”ll be the next Tom Brady”,” she says. This can be harmful to the child’s self image if he doesn’t believe it. “Instead, teach him to say, ‘I will play my hardest,” or ‘I will throw and catch”.”

Likewise, Dr. Katie Godfrey, licensed marriage and family therapist at The Catalyst Center in Denver, says the affirming statements you tell your child should be authentic, and kids can often tell if they are not. “Don’t tell them something about themselves that you don’t authentically believe,” she says.

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From a coaching perspective, Arvada soccer coach Mark Smith says it’s important to not embellish your child’s abilities. “Some parents fill their kids with so much positive, but parents should tell their kids the truth. There are some kids who are very entitled, and this is where it starts,” says Smith, who has coached all ages of boys and girls for 12 years. “When they are ready, talk about what they did well and what they didn’t do so well.”

“I Will Be Consistent”

Alston believes there is power in consistency, and has never skipped a day of his morning routine with Aliyah. He sees her perseverance already. In the routine, he says, If you fall, and she replies, I get back up. “This part of the routine shows every single day,” he says. “We go to the playground very oftenEach and every time she falls, she pops right back up, with no tears or without looking for someone to come save her.”

People have told Alston that he’s setting his daughter up for success, but he thinks that’s too heavy of a burden to carry. “We don’t know what life will bring, so what I’m really trying to do is set her up to deal with failure,” he says.

And it probably will, according to doctors. “Positive affirmation can be incredibly impactful when it becomes a habit children can default to when they are under stress,” says Ziegler.

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In addition, “we theorize that when children hear positive affirmation, there are neural pathways being built,” says Godfrey. “The more someone hears a message, the stronger the neural pathways get. They act as a protective factor, like insulation.”

The younger you start, the better, because particularly after age nine, Godfrey says it’s common for children to feel embarrassed by affirmation from their parents. “Don’t stop just because it is uncomfortable,” she says. If your kid isn’t receiving affirmation well, she suggests making positive comments to others when the child is within earshot, so the child will still hear how you feel.

And consistent, positive messages between a dad and a daughter are important for another reason, too. “When a dad gives a daughter healthy messaging, he is teaching the girl what she should expect from a man,” Godfrey says. “She will be more likely to choose healthy relationships as she gets older.”

“I Will Be Specific”

With his 11-and-12-year-old girls soccer team, Smith takes time after games to have each girl say something positive about another player’s performance. It helps them be specific about their teammates” abilities, and he sees the girls grow more confident in the process.

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Experts agree that the more specific you can be, the better. In fact, Ziegler cautions parents not to give general praise such as “great job.” If you tell children “great job,” and the next day, you don’t say it, they could question what you think about them. “Kids hear ‘great job” so much, it is really diluted,” Ziegler says. “Say ‘great eye contact,” or ‘thanks for the hug, that makes me feel loved.” This way, it is about one aspect of them and not their whole self.”

Godfrey says it’s more effective to comment on things when they are happening. “If a child struggles with math but then gets it, don’t say, ‘wow, you must feel smart,” but ‘wow, you really stuck with that”. Comment on their ability to work hard.” Also, reflect back on things your children do. If they took care of a pet, you could say, I love the way you care so much about animals. They”ll be more apt to believe it, because they”ll remember what they did.

Godfrey says it’s best to avoid making specific statements about a child’s body image, whether speaking to a boy or girl. Focus on what the body can do, such as “you can run fast” or “your body is strong.” Don’t say, ‘that outfit makes you look really thin,” and avoid any comments about weight.

“I Will Model What I Say”

With the students he coaches, Smith says it’s important that his teams see the passion he has for the game, in order for them to improve and grow as players. “When I show them I”d run through a brick wall for them, then they”ll work harder for me,” he says.

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Alston believes that you have to practice being positive―it doesn’t always happen right away. “I think it’s a skill you can develop, not a character trait,” he says. “There are days that I get up and I’m the one that needs to hear those things (in our routine). I might have a tough day ahead at work, and saying those things actually makes me walk out the door a more positive person.”

Alston says he tries to live each day as if Aliyah is watching him. “If you pass away a week from now, what would you want (your children) to say? How would you want to make them feel? If it’s not what you want, then change this week.”

Lydia Rueger is an Arvada-based freelance writer, editor, and mother of two.

Other Positively Important Things

If giving positive affirmation is not your strength, don’t worry. Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler sites many equally important factors here that contribute to healthy, confident children (and you’re probably teaching some of them already).

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• Trust and security between child and parent

• Attunement to the child’s needs

• Attention to the child

• Delayed gratification

• Empathy

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• Responsibility

• Independence

• Open and warm communication

• Rules and limits

• Parent providing a context for rules and limits

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• Sense of belonging

• Sense of purpose

• Acceptance of mistakes

When Positives Aren’t Present

Kids who hear few or no positive affirmations “grow up thinking poorly of themselves, and that they are not worthy of love and respect,” Dr. Katie Godfrey says. “They end up in unhealthy relationships and are less successful in work environments.” We know it’s important, but, as a parent, if you”ve had few positive role models to draw from, what can you do? “Start small, and observe your child,” Godfrey says. “When you notice them doing something that you value, comment on it, even if it’s ‘I like how you helped put away the dishes” or ‘thank you for saying thank you.” Those things add up.”

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