mom and son hugging
Learning at School

10 Positive Ways to React When Your Child Calls Himself Stupid

If your child calls himself stupid, and your heart breaks a little bit each time, I’ve got a little story for you.

In my classroom, I had a student last year who was a twin. I’m going to call him Miguel to protect his privacy. His twin brother was quite a bit brighter than him. His brother also had more friends. Even his mama seemed to play favorites. This little guy – a third grader – had all but shut down and quit doing any school work at all.

Part of the problem was his difficulty with focus, but a bigger hindrance for him was his mental health. He was a depressed little friend, and it was downright painful to watch as his teacher. One day, he had an angry outburst and said, “I’m too stupid to do ANY OF THIS!”

Of course, that got my attention. I gave him a moment of privacy and insisted the other students continue working. I pulled him into the hallway and tried to give him a hug and a pep talk.

But of course, if you’ve ever spent much time in a classroom, you know what happened next. By the end of the week, several boys were ALL calling themselves stupid throughout the day. It was time to hit the reset button in room 104.

Take note of any negative self-talk patterns. 

Before you can respond appropriately when your child calls himself stupid, you need to do some reflecting as this child’s mama or teacher. Here are some things to consider.

Is this a new behavior or ongoing?

If this is a new behavior that seems to be coming out of nowhere, it’s worth considering that it’s a learned behavior from a friend. All kids want to fit in, so it’s possible that another student got lots of positive attention for exclaiming that they’re stupid. Of course, it still needs to be addressed.

If your calls himself stupid as an attention-seeking behavior, have a frank discussion with your kiddo about why it’s inappropriate. Next, try to give him or her the positive attention they are wanting.

Is the child generally too hard on himself?

If your child is generally hard on himself, and this new behavior fits into a larger pattern, it might be time to really focus on helping your child work through these feelings. See below for some ideas!

Mother and daughter walking with a backpack - holding hands and smiling

Consider how you talk about intelligence in your home. 

Kids get their ideas about intelligence and achievement directly from home. Teachers can help with a child’s mindset, but parents and grandparents have a far greater influence. Children learn about intelligence by the way their own parents discuss achievement, effort, and intelligence in their ordinary, daily conversations.

It’s also worth mentioning that the way we parents perceive intelligence can: a) really inhibit growth in our kids and b) be an incredibly difficult habit to break. Ideas that we have about smarts are pretty drilled into our psyche.

This is an area I’m still working on as a parent, although it comes more naturally to me to focus on growth as a teacher.

What is a fixed mindset?

A fixed mindset is one that has internalized intellect and other raw abilities as being fixed or unchangeable.

People who have a fixed mindset about intelligence might believe that hard work and good grades can make up some difference, but they generally think the raw potential isn’t likely to change over a child’s lifetime.

If you’ve got a fixed mindset about intelligence or ability, you might say things like this about your kids:

  • She’s such a smart kid!
  • He’s my most athletic one.
  • She’s such a drama queen – she was born for the stage!
  • He’s got a lot of musical ability.

It’s absolutely true that kids are naturally gifted in different ways, and it’s normal to compare and celebrate areas of giftedness. But the language we use about kids’ raw abilities can shape their identities, and what goes unspoken can damage their willingness to try new things.

How we’re trying to change our fixed mindset communication:

siblings playing together - older sister entertaining toddler brother

This is something we REALLY need to work on in our house.

Our daughter is highly verbal. From the time she was about 18 months, everyone around us commented on how smart she is because her language abilities just seemed so advanced for her age. She was also a very young reader.

Conversely, our son is much less naturally gifted with language and also seems to get defeated easily when faced with new challenges. He does seem very coordinated and like he might have some athletic ability emerge as he gets older.

One thing I’m starting to worry about is the effect it might have on our son if we don’t change the way we talk about his sister in his presence. As he gets older, he may start to wonder, “Am I not as smart as my sister?” If our child calls himself stupid because of how I spoke about his sister, that would really bother me.

Even though we will likely be praising him for his athleticism and tender heart, the mere absence of chatter about him being super bright might start to affect his beliefs about his own ability in school. I don’t want the language I use around him (or don’t use) to shape his own self esteem.

I would also really hate it if our daughter was too afraid to try sports because we joke about her being uncoordinated.

As a whole family, our communication around abilities needs to change. Do you struggle with this, too?

What is growth mindset?

Growth mindset is something we teachers try to cultivate in kids. It encourages them to focus on developing and growing rather than perceiving their natural strengths and weaknesses as limitations.

It’s the reason why you see kids doing affirmations in front of their mirror before school. Some teachers have growth mindset affirmations in their classroom, too.

Here is what a growth mindset sounds like coming from the mouth of a child:

  • I don’t know how to do that yet.
  • I’m learning a new sport right now.
  • I’m going to keep trying even when I get frustrated.
  • I’m on the right track.
  • I’m shooting for progress instead of perfection!
  • I try new things.
  • Practice makes better!
  • I’m not afraid of a challenge.
  • Mistakes are the key to learning.
  • Nothing can hold me back when I’m determined.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? It doesn’t disguise the truth or pretend that strengths and weaknesses aren’t there. In fact, having a growth mindset confronts the struggle head on with grit and persistence. Those are amazing values to teach our children!

If you want more information about affirmations for kids, check out my post with tons of free resources, printables and lesson plans!

Discuss the feeling but not the accuracy of the statement.

If your child calls himself stupid, don’t get into a verbal power struggle with your child. It’s not helpful here to argue with him.

Have you ever complained with a friend about something that felt very REAL to you in the moment? Is there anything more frustrating than having that person argue with you about it? For example:

Me: Today was awful. I just woke up in a bad mood, and then my admin walked through my classroom at a bad moment when I looked really disorganized, and then I picked a fight with my husband…

Friend: Well, that sounds like a bad day, but it could always be worse! At least you have a job!

Eww. It’s the worst feeling. Now, your bad day just got worse, because your buddy blew off your feelings. Don’t do that to your kids.

Instead of discussing the accuracy of whether or not your child is actually stupid, explore the feeling with them. Resist the urge to argue about his or her notion about being stupid, no matter how powerful. Here’s what you can say instead:

“I really don’t believe you’re stupid at all, but I am sad you feel that way. What makes you say that?”

Father and son having a hug - little boy is sad

Consistently reward effort over achievement and talent.

It’s natural to celebrate when your child performs well on a test or scores the winning point in a game. But incentivizing hard work, effort and persistence is even more important.

For example, at the very first practice, it was clear my daughter would not be a star on her first soccer team. She was younger, smaller, slower and very cautious. She simply wasn’t aggressive enough to get into the mix. In spite of being at a healthy weight, she also struggled to maintain endurance. There wasn’t much joy on her face while she played. It was pretty brutal sometimes to watch her play, to be honest!

Later in the season, we started setting goals before games and practices, but they weren’t about scoring points. To be honest, it felt like that might never happen. Instead, we set goals together like these, which felt more motivating and attainable to her:

  • I’ll never stop running as long as I’m on the field.
  • I’m going to kick the ball today at least three times.
  • When I’m on the sidelines, I’ll cheer for my teammates.
  • Today, I’m going to pay close attention to what my coach says, and I’ll try my best to follow directions.

As she began to accomplish these little goals, the smile returned to her face.

three little multicultural girls, each holding a different kind of ball and smiling

Periodically model the kind of thinking you want for your child.

I’ve always loved writing, but the technology part of setting up a blog initially felt intimidating to me. It’s also been slow going to gain readers, which is very normal for bloggers. But I’m determined to become a successful blogger some day.

It is sometimes tempting to exclaim: “Ugh! I’m NEVER going to figure this out! I’m awful at technology!” But I don’t say that – at least not in front of my kids.

Here are some of the things I make sure to say within their earshot, while they see me working on my blog:

  • Good thing there are Youtube videos! I’ll figure it out eventually!
  • I’ve only got about 10 people reading my blog each day. Next month, it’s going to be more like 20 people!
  • I’ll just keep trying until I reach my next goal.
  • I’m never giving up on this blog, no matter how slowly things seem to be going.
mom and daughter working on a computer together

Laugh at your own mistakes and weaknesses.

If we take ourselves too seriously, our kids will, too. It would make me sad if my kids missed out on the joy of trying something new because they were afraid of failure. I only see one way around that problem: laugh at my own failures and then try again!

If our kids see us joyfully doing things we aren’t naturally good at doing, they’re more likely to try something hard, too. Further, they’re more likely to keep trying when something is hard; or worse, when something makes them feel “stupid.”

I’m not a great cook or baker, but I got a cookbook for Christmas that I was excited to use. One day, my daughter and I carefully tried to follow a recipe for old fashioned fudge. We seriously thought we did everything right, but it turned out awful. I could have let it get me down, but instead, I had a laugh about it.

The next weekend, we tried another candy recipe in the book and it was delicious! I hope she learned something from me that day.

sister and brother cooking together and holding a whisk

Create a family failure mantra and repeat it frequently.

If we talk regularly about failure, it will take the sting away. Fear of failure is the number one reason kids are afraid to persist when something is hard.

Let’s imagine your child calls himself stupid after tackling a difficult problem in math class. What family mantra for failure might help push him over the hump so you can work on it again together? The Shine has a really great little list of failure mantras you can try to adopt as a family.

Take brain breaks to tackle frustrating projects.

It can be tempting to force your child to keep working on a problem or writing assignment if it seems like they might give up. You want to teach persistence. But you can still teach effort and hard work without pushing them beyond their limits.

If your child calls himself stupid during a writing assignment, here’s what I might say:

“Wow, it seems like you’re getting frustrated and overwhelmed. Let’s take a break to do something you love. We’ll set a timer for 15 minutes and try again.”

little girl doing homework in some kind of journal

Are you and your children struggling with too much homework? Here are my tips for talking with the teacher about homework.

Focus on continuing the conversation rather than stopping it.

I think when our kids say something that makes us uncomfortable, it can be tempting to just SHUT. IT. DOWN. After all, it hurts our hearts when our kids engage in negative self talk of any kind, especially if your child calls himself stupid.

In fact, this is a growth area for my parenting! My daughter would never call herself stupid, but one day, she was starting to throw a fit about not being able to ride her bike. She said, “I’m too scared! I’ll NEVER be brave enough to ride this bike AGAIN!”

Very dramatic!

My instinct was to stop the conversation. After all, that sort of thinking is very counter-productive, so I wanted her to put a lid on it. I wanted the conversation to be over because I didn’t like what was coming out of her mouth.

In retrospect, it would have been more helpful to quit riding for a while, sit down together, and talk about fear and bravery. We could have agreed at the end of the conversation to try again the next day.

If we want our children to come to us with whatever is on their minds, we have to stop ending conversations when they say things we don’t like very much.

mother and daughter blowing bubbles together

Encourage risk taking.

The only way to ever become good at something, or smarter in a subject area, is to confront the risk of failure. We can encourage risk taking at home.

If you’ve got a shy child, organize a family talent show. Celebrate the bravery it takes to take the stage rather than the performance itself.

If you’ve got a little one who is getting frustrated with learning to read, pick a just-right book and read together at home. Focus on the little wins and don’t get bogged down in mispronounced words.

If your child isn’t naturally athletic, put them in a low-risk situation that involves exercise and give them a little encouragement.

Perfectionistic kids need regular exposure to challenges that are outside their comfort zone.

mother and daughter smiling with paint all over their hands

My daughter loves art, but struggles with being a perfectionist. One day, we thought it would be fun to have a Bob Ross family painting day. So we got out all the art supplies and canvases and fired up Netflix. We were excited to try and duplicate his painting.

She’s only six, so of course, hers looked nothing like Bob’s. Neither did our paintings! Rather than enjoying the challenge, she started to shut down about halfway through the painting. She couldn’t relax and just enjoy TRYING.

We let her just do her own thing, when we realized she didn’t quite have the mindset to continue. There wasn’t any sense in ruining an otherwise perfectly good Saturday.

At the end, we showed her our own imperfect paintings. She noted the ways ours were different than Bob’s. Nevertheless, she found it easy to compliment our work and celebrate what made each painting unique. We asked her if she could give herself the same grace. I imagine we’ll be having lots of similar conversations in the future.

If your child calls himself stupid, wants to trash her painting, or criticizes himself in any way at all, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath. Parenting requires compassion above all else in these moments.

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