When my son was just barely out of the toddler years, his grandmother gave him a puzzle for his birthday. It was one of those 60-piece rectangular deals with a picture of a prehistoric world inhabited by all kinds of dinosaurs. The box showed what the completed puzzle would look like and included a little icon in the bottom right corner with "Ages 5+" on it.
My son was just turning 4, but he loved puzzles and had long outgrown the chunky wooden puzzles of his earlier years. He was ready for the upgrade.
Brimming with pride and excitement, he sat down and got to work. I glanced in on him from the kitchen and saw him hunched over his project in a pool of sunlight, brow furrowed in concentration. I was smiling serenely to myself when he suddenly overturned the box, threw the partially completed puzzle against the wall, and growled through his tears, "I can't do it! It's too hard!" His tears crested his eyelids and poured down his cheeks.
I'm sure I'd heard him say those words before, maybe even a hundred times, but this was the first time that he sounded like a big kid when he said them. He sounded angry and even a little betrayed. It wasn't the babyish "I can't do it" like when he tried to reach his toothbrush on the counter or unbuckle his own car seat. It was a self-loathing sneer, directed not at the people who would help, but at himself. He was angry at himself.
It took me a moment to gather myself before I calmly bent beside him, picking up the strewn puzzle pieces and collecting them back into the box. I offered to work with him on it, but he stomped off in search of something else, his excitement gone.
That night, when it was time to get ready for bed, I joined him at the sink.
"You see that little boy there in the mirror?" I asked him. He giggled as he surveyed himself and nodded. "That little boy is a puzzle master. I have seen him practice and practice and get better and better at puzzles. Puzzles are not easy, but he is a hard worker. When he makes a mistake, he learns from it and gets even better at puzzles. Mistakes are OK. They help him. He is a puzzle master."
My son looked a little embarrassed and a little pleased at the same time.
"Tell him he's the puzzle master," I urged.
He blushed and paused, but I nodded so he raised an arm to point at himself in the mirror. "I'm the puzzle master," he murmured a bit sheepishly.
"Tell him mistakes help him learn."
"Mistakes help me learn," he repeated, his voice sounding a bit stronger.
"Tell him he's a hard worker"
"I'm a hard worker!" His chest puffed out.
"Tell him he can do it!"
"I can do it!" He was laughing now, standing tall and sticking his chin out proudly.
We repeated each of the phrases again and again, until they came easily and confidently. That night I heard him whispering to his younger brother, "I am the puzzle master, you know."
The next day, returning to the puzzle with a little encouragement and some more positive self-talk, I hoped that a switch had been flicked. I imagined him sitting down and magically completing the puzzle with ease. In my mind, we'd solved the problem. Instead, there were no miracles. He still couldn’t complete it.
What was different, though, was that he did not throw the puzzle or dissolve into a puddle of self-hating tears. When he was done working on it, he carefully pushed the completed section under his LEGO table and put the remaining pieces back into the box.
"I'm gonna save it for next time," he shrugged when he saw me watching.
My heart fluttered a bit with pride. This was the first time we'd used positive affirmations, but it wouldn't be the last.
What Are Positive Affirmations?
Positive affirmations are a form of positive self-talk. When repeated often enough, this positivity can contribute to gains in self-esteem and overall positive thinking. When my son tells himself that he can work hard and overcome challenges, he replaces his negative thoughts with positive, happy thoughts that build self-confidence. If he says them often enough, he internalizes these positive things about himself, learning that he has the skills and knowledge to be capable, confident, and kind, even in the face of obstacles.
It's not just children who can benefit from positive affirmations. Practicing daily affirmations helps us all to replace the nagging voice inside that might tell us "I can't" with a positive mindset that tells us mistakes are OK and that we learn from them to overcome challenges.
How to Use the Power of Affirmations With Your Child
You can use affirmations with your child to encourage positive thought patterns and build a growth mindset. If your child comes across an affirmation that she truly does not believe to be true about herself, this is a great chance to have a conversation as a family around what that affirmation really means and whether it could become a self-truth over time. Affirmations work when they are practiced consistently, so create a routine around positive affirmations in your home and teach your child to practice it several times a day.
- To start, identify any negative self-talk that you'd like to change. In my case, I wanted to change my son's perception that he couldn't do his puzzle.
- Next, think of a positive way to change this thought process. I knew my son was frustrated because he made mistakes doing his new puzzle. He thought that mistakes meant he wasn't capable of doing it. I wanted him to know that mistakes are something we learn from and that, over time, his mistakes would help him learn to do the puzzle.
- Then, use the new, positive thoughts to create simple, positive affirmations that your child can repeat. Have your child practice these affirmations at least daily. Saying them into the mirror can make them especially powerful, and you can help by repeating them again to your child at bedtime.
Some families find it helpful to use affirmation cards so that remembering affirmations isn't part of the routine. Instead, your child can simply choose a card from the pile and read it to herself in the mirror. Families can even use these cards as jumping-off points for meaningful conversations together.
If you need some inspiration, check out our list of 51 positive affirmations below.
Seeing Positive Affirmations in Practice
Fast forward two years and my son began first grade. Reading didn't come easily to him, and I had noticed over the summer that it was something he avoided entirely whenever possible. I tried not to push the issue at home, and his teacher reassured me that it was a challenge she could handle in school.
By the end of September, he began to bring books to the kitchen table while I was cooking dinner. He still couldn't read them fluently, but he would painstakingly sound out each word as he went, slowly making his way from one page to the next. It seemed he was finally embracing the challenge.
Then, one evening he misread a word. It was one of those tricky letters that he seemed to always mix up: b, d, p, or q . He tried to sound the word out, again and again, but each time it came out wrong. Finally, he asked for my help, and I told him the word.
"I like the way you tried so hard on your own before you asked for help. You were so close," I told him.
"Mistakes are fine. They help me grow. They teach me what I need to know!" he chanted proudly. "My teacher taught us that. We say it every day."
He went back to his book nonchalantly, and I went back to my cooking, unable to hide the big, silly grin on my face that came from knowing that my child was surrounded at school with the same positive affirmations we'd been working on at home.
Reflecting on Positive Affirmations
Integrating positive affirmations into our daily routine has helped our family place attention on our own power to effect change and to be who we truly are.
This simple, quick routine has helped my children to reflect on themselves and who they want to be while growing into independent, resilient learners. It’s also taught them that they can indeed handle the big emotions they sometimes feel. Using positive affirmations as a family has inspired thoughtful, important conversations and has helped each of us focus on all the wonderful things we’re capable of doing.