How I have learned about the Power of Words?

Words have power. They can change the way we think about ourselves. I grew up having a mum who constantly fed me the idea that I was fat and ugly. I really thought that I was ugly. Maybe I was really chubby but ugly, that was devastating to the 13-year-old me. 

Ugly made me feel powerless because I can’t change my physical appearance unless I go under the knives. When I indicated my desire to go for plastic surgery, she became alarmed and started bombarding me with horror stories of medical misadventures and mishaps. Why had she not paused for a moment and reflected upon why her daughter would have such desires?

As you can gather by now, I have a mum who has an acerbic tongue. Because of this, I became very attuned to what parents are feeding their children, be it implicitly or explicitly. 

How kind words can change the trajectory of a child’s learning experience?

Children are incredibly sensitive creatures. They can sense what their parents think about them, even if the thoughts were never explicitly expressed aloud to them.

Here is a story of a child who was on the verge of perpetuating undermining thought patterns:

I have been tasked to coach a 9-year-old child at the start of the year 2021. I have been teaching his elder brother for a few months and their parents decided to engage me to teach the younger son too. When they first approached me about the idea, they shared that the younger child takes longer to learn and understand a concept compared to his elder brother. I was a little surprised that parents would describe that of their child. However, I knew they wanted me to have a realistic expectation of the child’s abilities so as to map out a reasonable improvements roadmap.  

Therefore, when I started teaching the child, I had a nagging feeling that the child may be en route to developing an inferiority complex. I have no concrete evidence and data at all, except that his circumstances checked many of the boxes of people whom I knew and also read about such as the second daughter in Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mum

  • He is the Second or Middle Child.
  • He has an Outstanding Elder Sibling.

I decided to sound out the alarm after the first lesson because I knew that the damage to my credibility would be smaller had I been wrong as compared to the damage on the child’s self-esteem should the negative self-narrative be allowed to manifest.

This is the letter that I sent to his parents:

I think Reynold may have a greater risk of developing an inferiority complex, which is the case of having an elder sibling who is very outstanding and quite close in age gap. I have friends who are still living in the shadows of their elder siblings even in their early twenties. Hence, I am sharing this possible risk that I think Reynold may encounter in some areas.

Children are/can be very sensitive and some may reveal their feelings while some do not. It will be easier if they tell us aloud what they think and feel and we can rectify them right away. However, if they choose not to reveal, it may manifest into undesirable learning behaviours over time such as not even trying or deluding themselves that they are not good in that subject.

I have encountered many different children and teenagers and inferiority complex is the most difficult to deal with and requires the most time to address as it is a thought habit that has been accumulated over many years. Therefore, I want to highlight this possible risk before it may occur based on my observations and our conversations over the months.

I think the biggest challenge with communicating with children is that most of them are not able to articulate their feelings and thoughts completely. Even if they could, they may choose not to reveal them. Therefore, the onus will be on adults to observe the children deeply in order to identify any potential pitfalls in their thought patterns.  

After I sent the letter to his parents, the mum wrote back and agreed that she had the same hunch. We came up with an action plan and I proposed to use Words of Affirmation to help the child sees his strengths. We also had to educate the elder brother to be more sensitive with his words and not make passing remarks like “Didi (Younger brother) is not so good at Math!”.

Within the span of 6 months, I could feel that the child’s confidence in his own ability has soared with positive affirmations from his parents and tutors. These nourishments have helped him performed in his first Science test in school. To me, being able to motivate a child is one of the most important duties of a tutor.

I have a wealth of experience coaching children from the age of 4 to 18 years old in the last decade. In my experience, restoring a 14 to 18-year-old student’s confidence requires at least 12 to 16 weekly 2 hours lessons over the course of 3 to 4 months to even see a small change. It takes a sheer amount of time and effort because I have to undo the destructive thought patterns that had built up over the years and reinstate positive new thought patterns in the neural pathways. 

Even if I succeed in reinforcing a student’s self-perspective and willpower, I will still require more time to teach the student how to learn and excel. Therefore, I often lament silently that to transform a student, parents would have to engage me 24/7 to live with the student for at least 3 months. The changes are draconian and most of the time, I would fail utterly at transforming the students, especially if they are already 17 to 18 years old.

Therefore, when I spotted the potential problem, I took a plunge to highlight an issue that has not manifested full-blown yet, hoping to rectify it before it grows bigger. I truly wanted to help my students’ parents save money and time.  Call me an alarmist, but I would rather be wrong than sorry if the issue at stake may jeopardise the learning experiences of a 9 -year-old child.  I have never felt more engaged in the job as a tutor after this experience.  

The purpose of sharing this story is not to brag or claim credit for anything. I just hope to share with every adult out there that WORDS HAVE POWER. We have to be KIND, GENUINE, and sometimes FIRM with our WORDS. 

Disclaimer

At the point of writing this essay, I am not a mum yet. I am just reflecting upon my experience as a tutor (for more than 10 years as of 2021) so that they could become a reference point in the future when raising my own kid(s). 

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