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Has anyone had experience with a child who has very black and white thinking patterns? Teaching our 5 yo son anything is very difficult as any modification of technique (i.e. with handwriting) is met with "I'm a terrible kid." We don't tell him he is terrible.

He sees everything as good or bad, there is not much in-between. It is possible he has a learning difference. He has motor dyspraxia and that goes along with other cognitive differences. He is very bright in a lot of ways (reads at a 2nd grade level), however his motor skills are far below average and his visuospatial reasoning seems below average.

  1. How do we teach him anything? How are we supposed to word constructive criticism to avoid him saying "I'm a bad/dumb/terrible kid"--and he is not being melodramatic, he really thinks he is terrible.
  2. What are we supposed to say when he says that, besides "you are not terrible."?
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  • Complementing them on parts they've done well and (if applicable) explaining why they should improve what you're criticising may help. "Question post titles should be phrased as questions" is not particularly constructive; it would be a lot better to say: "Good question [a bit generic, but anyway]; phrasing your post title as a question may make it easier for people to see what you're asking about without having to read the whole question".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 14:29
  • Children don't listen so much what we say but somehow suck everything from us. If you tend to blame yourself for your mistakes and shortcomings, then little chance for the child to do differently. My teacher say that parents need to work on themselves for their children to be well. Especially with such young children. Commented Nov 2, 2022 at 12:01
  • I don't get it: your child, not even six years old, has a motor handicap and you make him to handwriting exercises? Why don't you focus on his motor handicap first by letting him draw, sculpt, paint, ... and other things like that he might actually enjoy? Like this, his motor handicap will be treated and the handwriting will automatically get better.
    – Dominique
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 8:41
  • He doesn’t voluntarily do anything with his hands—he hates coloring and play dough though I make him do exercises with it . Handwriting is part of his KG homework
    – Chefchab
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 17:26

5 Answers 5

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It is not uncommon for children (and perhaps adults) to conflate self-confidence (our trust in our own abilities) with our sense of self-worth. Parents and other important adults are often good at providing positive feedback when a child does well, which may help the child link their sense of self worth to how well they perform. Without trying to imply this is something you've done wrong in particular - this is a systematic problem and something that is easy for children to internalize even with our best efforts to counter it - it does sound like this is what is happening in your child.

Simply countering the child's expression ("No, you're not") isn't likely to help. This communicates that you don't understand - that you're not seeing what the child is seeing. It's usually better to meet the child where they are - all feelings welcome - and explore together from there. "Oh, so when there's something you can't do as well as you'd like, you feel like you are terrible, huh? I can imagine that must be tough." I would pause there, to let the child chime in, and you can just mirror what the child is saying, rather than leading the conversation in any particular direction.

One of the things I've tried when I've seen this in my children, is to help them reflect on the function of practice: I've challenged them to think of something they can do today, that they've always excelled at, as opposed to becoming increasingly better with practice. "How about walking? You've always been good at walking, huh? Here, let's see if we can find some videos from when you were younger." Conversely, I challenge them to think of something they have practiced a lot, but has come no closer to proficiency in. I've found that this usually drives home the idea that there's almost nothing that doesn't require practice, and almost nothing of what is practiced that doesn't become gradually easier. (I would be more cautious about the last part, if you feel that your child has indeed been struggling really hard with his dyspraxia without seeing any improvements - but I suppose he is improving, just not in an age-adequate pace?)

So in short, don't rush to take away the tough feelings. Walk him through them. That way he will eventually be better equipped to handle your constructive criticisms and his own failures. In terms of your bullet list, if you address #2, #1 will become less of an issue.

Finally, though, I'll add that children struggling with learning a skill will usually be good at spotting when they don't perform as they've intended. Question whether you need to provide constructive feedback, or if whether it is enough to just cheer the child on, do what you can to keep a difficult task fun and rewarding, and trust that with practice the child will improve even without your criticism.

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    Really good answer. +1 Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 15:38
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    Not that Wikipedia is an arbiter of definitions, but it may speak to the prevalence of conflating self-worth and self-esteem that the Wikipedia entry on self-esteem begins with: Self-esteem is confidence in one's own worth or abilities.
    – Galen
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 16:48
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    "reflect on the function of practice", Jigsaw puzzles have inadvertently become such a great tool for me for this with my 4yo. She LOVES doing adult-sized puzzles with me (500-1000 pieces), since she was old enough to not eat the pieces (she used to just help sort by colour, now she actually gets some in the right spots!). And it teaches such a good less on of just trying again. Our motto has become "you can always try again". Try another piece. Have another go. Try it again. She sees me try piece after piece and get them wrong, and we just try another one. It lowers the stakes for her.
    – stan
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 18:17
  • @Galen: Hah! I did a quick Google search to check if this point I usually make in Swedish would fly in English as well, and upon first sight I thought it might, but upon closer inspection, it seems Wikipedia are not the only ones to adapt such a definition. I'll revise my statement.
    – user36162
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 18:54
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    @BenHocking, when I'm drawing with my daughter, or colouring in, I intentionally make mistakes like she is. I'll colour outside the lines a bit, it'll be a bit crooked or a bit skew. The lines may be too long. I do this so that she can see my reaction to making a mistake, which is shrug ¯_(ツ)_/¯. "that's not a big deal, we try again!".
    – stan
    Commented Nov 23, 2022 at 10:07
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One of the key terms you should add to your vocabulary is growth mindset. A growth mindset means you believe you are capable of growth, and approach problems that way. Rather than "I can't do it", it's "I can't do it yet".

The term was coined by Carol Dweck, and while some of her research has proven difficult to replicate, the concept is still a good one at the high level: keeping an open mind about capability and focusing on what you can improve rather than what you cannot do helps children, and adults, make those improvements.

The concept is to avoid a "fixed" mindset - meaning, thinking that how you are right now is how you are forever. Saying "I'm bad at writing" is a fixed mindset - it means you think you are now, and forever will be, incapable of writing well.

Even for children who do have learning difficulties, and therefore will have a harder time writing - and perhaps will never be able to write as well as their peers - the idea is to focus on improving, and to understand you don't necessarily know what your limits are. That leads to improvements.

You can find more all over the internet - this is a very popular concept, and is taught in many elementary schools I've encountered, even in Kindergarten for my older son. This site for example talks in some detail about the science behind it (which, as I noted, is somewhat controversial, but only for the degree to which it makes claims - most people agree the big picture is reasonably sound).

One personal note; this is something of a struggle for us, with two children who are highly exceptional in math and reading, but not exceptional in writing (so far). The reason for that is that they don't seem to need to improve in math - they're both several grades ahead there - and reading, similarly they can read anything many grade levels above their own. The disparate nature of their apparent abilities reinforces the fixed mindset to some extent, because they (probably correctly) feel they have an innate talent at math and reading, but not at writing - and thus feel (incorrectly) that they can't improve in writing. It's something we have to work with every day essentially. Writing in particular is hard because it's hard to measure progress - it's easy to do that in math or reading, but writing is so squishy that any improvement is often difficult to see. Handwriting, at 5, is going to be similar - they won't be able to do what you do, so they'll have a hard time understanding their improvements.

One thing that I've seen that helped is getting them involved in an activity that is hard, but achievable, and has noticeable progress. Something like chess, for example (we play Pokémon cards competitively, which is similar) - something they like but also can get better at. Learning that they can learn while doing something that has other positive stimuli seems to help with the growth mindset, in our experience.

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  • I love Carol Dweck! Her work is, to me, one of the most important means to develop resiliency, such a crucial tool for living a satisfying life. +1 Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 18:05
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Too long answer (longer than I wanted it to be), because @dhx covered the more important stuff so well. This is just another tool for the kit.

I suggest you start teaching the child the subject informal logic. It's usually a high school class, e.g. in prepping for debates, but since one goal is to improve reasoning skills, there's absolutely no reason you can't start right now with real world examples.*

Bifurcation (or black/white, all/nothing thinking) is a very common fallacy, especially in children; basically it supposes there to be only two alternatives when in fact there are more. An example is that something is either good or bad, when in fact, there is a wide range of possibilities.

Start with easier things, say, "I stink at tic tac toe/noughts and crosses/(something)." After addressing the feelings your child is experiencing ("That must feel bad! Does it? What are you feeling?" (it could be disappointment, frustration, or a number of other things. An emotional vocabulary will help a lot with this.) This validates the child in that you care about how he's feeling and that you can understand why he feels that way. Then, you address the possibilities. How many (e.g.) games of tic tac toe has he played? Has he ever won? Does losing more than once automatically make him a bad player? Is it possible to be average? Is it possible to have bad days and good days? Explore the possibilities. When the child is calm sometime, explain that all/nothing thinking is an example of an idea called "bifuraction". You can illustrate this by, say, drawing a line on a piece of paper which branches into a fork. (the word bifurcation basically means a fork with two tines, like the early forks people used to eat food with.) If you then ask him to draw a fork, hopefully he will draw one with three or four tines. See? A line can divide into many lines, not just two.

Emotions are harder, but can be dealt in a similar manner. After validating the child, you can point out another (extremely common) fallacy: the ad hominem (attacking the person, not the thing).

An example: John fell. John is an idiot.

There can be a hundred reasons that John fell. He might have tripped on something on the ground. He might have felt feint. He might have a balance problem, or muscle weakness in his leg. None of that means anything about his character.

Another example: John wrote something poorly. He might be very young and without the practice it takes to write neatly. He might be in a rush. He might be thinking about other things. His fine motor skills might need more work. None of these things means anything about his character.

Perhaps the next time your son says, "I'm a terrrible kid," You can validate his feelings (That must feel so bad! I'm so sorry you feel bad.) then explore them: Are you feeling anything else? Do you feel frustrated? Do you feel "less-than"? Do you feel like you're not good enough? This is where a good emotional vocabulary is extremely helpful.

Then bring up the fact that a single thing - a mistake, a defeat, a problem with handwriting, whatever, doesn't mean anything about his character. That's an ad hominem: instead of focusing on the problem, he's focusing on the person.

Remind him every time that who he is doesn't depend on any one thing, but on many, many things. You don't need to praise him excessively, which might be seen as an invalidation of his feelings, but you can build him up.

It's ok to feel _______, but feeling _______ doesn't make you a terrible person. If that were true, we would all be terrible people, because everybody feels _______ sometimes. I feel _______ when _______. When I feel _______, I try to think about the times I (did something that made you feel the opposite, etc.)

Sorry this is so long. It's about critical thinking, emotional vocabularies, and resilience. Those are difficult to cover in a brief answer.

*I started teaching informal logic to my kids before kindergarten. Back then, there were commercials/ads on television. I wanted them to be able to identify the fallacies used in television advertisements so they could counter their influence. Toy commercials (and for adults, beer [any alcohol, really] commercials) are a great example. Basically, at that point, I was starting to teach critical thinking and its application to media.

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    Love the idea of using informal logic here - I never learned informal logic explicitly but this matches up really well with some of the things that have worked well for us!
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 18:24
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    @Joe, I think you would really like informal logic. It's really fun to spot the fallacy! Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 19:07
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First off let me just say that it sounds very rough what you are going through. I wanted to at least offer my own experience, what I remember of it, going through difficulty learning handwriting as a child. As a kid I was completely overwhelmed for whatever reason by the "do this" and "don't do this" learning approach in handwriting, I just couldn't focus, couldn't see why it mattered and I was falling behind. It wasn't until I was tutored by a neighbor who had beautiful handwriting that it INSPIRED me to try and write better, because I wanted to write like THAT. And when I asked her why her handwriting was so much better than mine she simply said "I am older and have had more practice, when you are older you will have good handwriting too. From that point on instead of seeing handwriting as something you do "correctly" vs "incorrectly" I saw it as something I had to continuously improve on so that someday, when I was older I too could have beautiful handwriting, like my neighbor and nobody had to try to convince me to improve. I became self motivated. Anyways I hope there is a grain of wisdom here somewhere that helps you. Good luck.

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I used to be that kind of a person, but I've learned along the way that it was being rather harmful for me. Yes, its beneficial when you obsess on something and be a all-in person, but that doesn't cover the damage of being or-nothing, imho. Being bipolar is similar to being all-or-nothing i believe.

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