This is the fourth in a series of Monday posts describing The Language of Sunflower. In previous weeks, we talked about expressing Feelings, Modeling Empathy and modeling Respect.

Sometimes mothers are incredibly wise. Mine sent me a piece of writing many years ago that has stuck with me to this day. It was perfectly timed – my two then young children, Samantha and Alex, were beginning to appear as clones of my husband and myself. We were all hearing the phrases “Just like her mommy” and “He’s his dad’s son” with some regularity. My husband began referring to Alex as “mini-me.” Many of you are already cringing. My Mom clearly saw the dangers in these labels, and found a tactful way to share her understanding with us. The piece she sent me was by an adoptive parent who wrote beautifully about the freedom of watching her daughter develop into who she was meant to be, as she wasn’t constantly looking for the reflection of herself in her child.

The Problem With Labels
I have since come to understand that whenever we label children, even if the label is “positive” as in “You’re such a great athlete” or “You’re an excellent mathematician, just like your mom” we do them a disservice. Children need encouragement from us, not evaluation. They need room to experiment with new ideas and new skills, so they discover for themselves who they are, what they’re good at, and what they love to do. At Sunflower, our goal is to help children discover their passions. We use the language of encouragement, and stay away from judgments.

Instead of an overly enthusiastic “Good job!” “Fantastic work!” or “Beautiful art!” you will hear Sunflower teachers focusing on the specifics, the process and the effort.

They speak in a natural voice after careful observation of the child at play. They might say:

“You did that all by yourself today.”

“You’ve been working hard on that for a long time.”

 “You chose so many different shades of blue for your picture.”

I didn’t find Sunflower until my daughter was four, and by then she was already showing me her art and asking for my approval. I felt funny about it, but couldn’t put my finger on just why. Then Susan told me about Alfie Kohn’s work, and that if I wanted to raise children who were intrinsically motivated–who knew themselves and weren’t always looking for praise and rewards from others–then I needed to change my language and my reactions.

As I made this transition in my parenting I used the phrase “Thank you for showing me” when Samantha presented me with her work. I resisted the “It’s so pretty! I love it!” that would previously have followed and instead substituted a question such as “What were you thinking about when you painted this?” Eventually she stopped coming to me with every piece that she produced, and instead of being disappointed, I was elated. I hadn’t squelched her love of art with my judgments!

It was and is, to this day, hers, after all.

This is a self-portrait by Samantha Ligeti, created at age 16. When she painted this, she was thinking about herself as a Seedling.

More Reading
Specific examples of encouraging language
Motivation and how to foster success

Jennifer Ligeti
is Managing Director at Sunflower Creative Arts. Over the years she’s worn many hats at Sunflower, including Seedlings teacher and facilitator of communication workshops for parents. She is mom to two former Seedlings, Samantha and Alex.

© Jennifer Ligeti and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011
Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts 2011
Original artwork © Samantha Ligeti