Thoughtful Parenting: Pygmalion Effect |

Thoughtful Parenting: Pygmalion Effect

Chris Young/For Steamboat Today

Most of us have heard of the expression "self-fulfilling prophecy." It is also called the Pygmalion Effect.

A play titled "Pygmalion" was written by George Bernard Shaw, then adapted into a popular movie, "My Fair Lady." The Pygmalion Effect is a phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an improvement in performance.

In the '60s and '70s, researchers experimented in school classrooms. They told teachers that some students would perform very well and others not so well. True to the researchers' predictions, the students who were expected to perform well did, while the others performed less well.

How does this apply to improved parenting? Our actions toward our children have an impact on the children's beliefs about us, which leads to the children's actions toward us and then reinforce our children's beliefs about themselves and influence their actions toward us.

If this sounds circular, it is. In simpler terms, how we treat our children instructs them about how we feel toward them. Their behavior toward us is influenced by what they think we think about them. How does this translate into parenting our children in a healthy manner?

As is the case with many parenting ideas, the devil is in the details. Our expectations for our children shine through in our facial expressions, tones of voice and gestures — in short, our nonverbal behavior. We communicate our high hopes for our children to a great degree by how we show our attentiveness to them.

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A focused look and raised eyebrows send a different message than wandering eyes and a bored expression. Little grimaces, shrugs and frowns communicate more powerfully to our children than our words. Saying "I love you" with a stern or sneering expression conveys lack of love and is confusing, at best.

Many of us act on autopilot with our children, unaware of how we affect them. Then, we wonder why certain behaviors keep recurring. How can we change our nonverbal communication to our children without being aware of what our faces and bodies are saying?

A quick scan of our thoughts and feelings toward our children can help. This can be aided by taking a deep breath and deciding how and what we want to tell our children about themselves. We all want to be the best parents possible in order to enhance our children's development. Our known or unknown expectations of them can assist or sabotage our efforts. It's possible to encourage and support our children without setting them up for failure. A smile of acceptance works wonders for any child.

Many have written about the idea of mindfulness. Being self-aware is a tremendous gift to our beloved children. It helps convey to them that they are heard, respected and will be helped by us.

Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, visit her website at She can be reached at 970-879-3032.