A Good Kid CAN Shake a Bad Rap
My daughter tires of hearing teachers say, “I’m so glad you’re nothing like your older brother.” She readily jumps to the defense of the boy she begs me to put up for adoption each morning during breakfast. One by one, she names his endearing qualities: Intelligent, quick-witted, creative, loyal, athletic, enthusiastic, funny, joyous . . .
Despite his finer features, impulsiveness, lack of self-discipline, boisterous outbursts and poor timing carve a chasm between him and certain teachers. From grade to grade, his reputation follows him and grows. He’s labeled as one to look out for. There are teachers who cringe when reading his name on their rosters. No matter what I say, I can’t make them change their minds.
Patrician Herrin, a certified parenting, marriage and life coach with Life Management Group in Augusta asserts, “Every child will make mistakes and do things to test the waters.” Some will make big blunders like an act of vandalism or an over-the-top outburst at a teacher. Others will indulge in a series of small things, such as minor disruptions to class routines, telling white lies or trying profanity.
Poor judgment is part of the make-up of children. “They have a poorly developed frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the CEO of the brain. It helps a person plan ahead and predict the consequences of actions,” explains Dr. Rita Eichenstein, PhD, a pediatric neuropsychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and author of Not What I Expected: Parenting a Special Needs Child (to be released in April 2015).
The results of negative behaviors generally include others’ lasting convictions about the core nature of the child. It’s human nature to put people into simple categories. “Biologically, people need to assign categories of good or bad,” says Eichenstein. “It’s a primitive safety mechanism.” On some level, threat to oneself, one’s image or one’s offspring is being gauged. Making an attribution of good or bad is a survival tool.
Impressions also depend on an adults’ perception of and/or how well he or she connects with a child. Good kids sometimes get placed on the “bad” list, and sometimes a mischievous kid is given slack. “Some kids are just more likeable than others,” says David Bennett, a teacher at William V. Fischer Catholic High School in Lancaster, Ohio, and co-author of The Teen Popularity Handbook: Make Friends, Get Dates and Become Bully-Proof. “The likeable kids can avoid the label more easily.”
Labels Dictate Behavior
Though teachers and other adults strive to treat each child the same, labels can get in the way. They dictate behavior toward people. Herrin cites the Rosenthal Effect and the Golem Effect to explain this phenomenon. The Rosenthal Effect describes the correlation between high expectations and success. “Kids who are given positive labels are more likely to be spoken to positively,” Herrin says. Conversely, the Golem Effect describes the correlation between low expectations and low performance. Herrin advises, “Adults’ negative thoughts about a child will come out in words and actions toward the child.” Likewise, kids live up to the expectations of others.
Seven Tips for Turning Things Around
Kids, this section is for YOU. It’s never too late to change your image. There’s no magic trick for creating likeability. It hinges on how you present the product and you are the product.
• It’s a new school year with new teachers and new peers. Use this chance to make a new first impression. Arrive clean and well-groomed. Dress appropriately. Smile. Say hello to teachers and administrators when passing them in the hall. According to Eichenstein, these measures generate a positive Halo Effect. In other words, they construct a good image that has staying power in the minds of others.
• Use eye contact and positive body language (such as good posture and un-crossed arms) when talking to adults and peers. Nod to indicate that you’re paying attention when they’re talking.
• Change your wardrobe, if necessary. People can’t see the new you if you’re dressed in the rebellious clothing associated with the old you. Make sure your outward appearance matches the inward change you’re making. Re-branding can be as simple as re-packaging. (“Parents can actively rehabilitate the image of a kid,” assures Bennett. “Refuse to support an image that isn’t representative of your kid.” This means not buying clothing, accessories, piercings, hair color and so on that others relate with negative behaviors or attitudes.)
• Accept responsibility. Learn to say, “I’m sorry,” when you mess up. Bennett says, “A simple apology to an authority figure makes a huge difference.” Then assure the adult of a plan to change. Ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it. “We tend to want to forget about [the incident],” Bennett continues, “but the tension builds. The ‘bad’ label sticks.”
• If the “bad” label is due to a global issue rather than a one-time episode, talk it out with the people in power. Bennett says, “It’s hard to label someone when you’re communicating.” Opening up and airing things out and allowing adults to get to know you better leads to positive feelings. Everyone is more likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to a person with whom he or she has a more developed relationship.
• “Win over the right people,” encourages Bennett. Connect with teachers and adults who have influence, the ones who have the ability to persuade their cohorts. They can advocate for you.
• Understand that it’s harder to change the minds of peers. “Often peers label each other with titles that aren’t even true. But if it’s repeated often enough, the label sticks, whether it’s true or not,” says Herrin. She advises kids to make a change of scenery. Hang out with a different group. Try a different afterschool activity. Eat at a different lunch table. Trust that time will work in your favor.
I don’t want my son to become someone he isn’t. I love his every quirk. Nonetheless, I can’t talk other people into adoring him. My job is to teach him the skills he needs to win others over and to coach him through using them. The power of personal presentation and a plan for proper engagement will put his best face forward. And his sister will happily go back to begging me to put him up for adoption.
Lucy Adams is a freelance writer and the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children. Contact Lucy at firstname.lastname@example.org.