The Most Powerful 3-Letter Word a Parent or Teacher Can Use

Kids love to announce that they’re not good at something. They usually do it just after they try something new and challenging, and they say it with finality, as if issuing a verdict.

I’m not good at math!” or, “I’m not good at volleyball.”

At that moment, our normal parental/teacher/coach instinct is to fix the situation. To boost the kid up by saying something persuasive like, “Oh yes you are!” Which never works, because it puts the kid in the position of actively defending their ineptitude. It’s a lose-lose.

So here’s another idea: ignore the instinct to fix things. Don’t try to persuade. Instead, simply add the word “yet.”

You add the “yet” quietly, in a matter-of-fact tone, as if you were describing the weather or the law of gravity.

“I’m not good at math” becomes “You’re not good at math yet.”

“I’m not good at volleyball” becomes “You’re not good at volleyball yet.”

The message: Of course you’re not good — because you haven’t worked at it. But when you do, you will be good.

At first glance, it seems silly — how can just one word make a difference?

The answer has to do with the way our brains are wired to respond to self-narratives. That’s where our friend Dr. Carol Dweck and her work on mindset come in. Through a series of remarkable experiments, she’s shown how small changes in language — even a few words — can affect performance.

Her core insight is that the way we frame questions of talent matter hugely. If we put the focus on “natural ability,” kids tend to be less engaged and put forth less effort (after all, if it’s just a genetic lottery, then why should I try?). When we put the focus on effort, however, kids tend to try harder and are more engaged.

In other words, it’s all about the story, because the story creates the culture.

I happen to spend most of the year in Cleveland, Ohio, where each year the area’s teams invent new and innovative ways to lose — it’s the Silicon Valley of sports futility. Because everybody at some level (players, coaches, fans) subconsciously expects to lose. It’s a vicious cultural circle.

On the other hand, Cleveland is also home to a number of remarkable elementary and high schools that are precisely the opposite of its sports teams: strong, positive cultures where every signal is aligned with values of risk, learning, and growth. Inside the walls of these schools, it’s all about virtuous circles: feedback loops that energize and motivate.

It’s no coincidence that this “Yet” idea comes from one of these places: Laurel School, where my ninth-grade daughter happens to be enrolled. The head of school, on reading Dweck’s work, decided to make “Yet” the school’s new watchword. And in a short time, it’s caught on, traveling through the culture like a virus. Teachers are saying it. Kids are saying it. They’ve even printed it on bumper stickers (above).

Yes, it’s kinda corny, like these things tend to be. I’m sure some teens roll their eyes when they hear it. But I also think it has an effect, because “yet” tells a clear story about the value of effort and struggle, and that story is aligned with the way the brain grows.

Which makes me wonder: what other ways do you parents, teachers, and coaches tell your story and establish your cultures?  Are there recurrent words/phrases – or, on the other hand, certain words that are off-limits? I’d love to hear your examples and suggestions.