“By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.”
- Jean Baptiste Girard
Everything we say matters. It matters especially so when we speak to children. I think most people agree not to use profanities around growing, absorbent minds… but besides just the superficial ‘child-safe’ vocabulary filtering we do around kids, I want to ask: how much do we really… I mean really think about our word exchange with children?
When I think about how I speak with children, I first ask myself several questions:
- How is my tone and attitude? What message am I saying with my facial expression and body language?
It is very easy to be emotionally swept away by chidren’s behaviors or words if we are not used to them. Before I speak, a millisecond of checking in with myself, and a breath reminds me to be aware of my own state. Am I feeling annoyed? tired? confused? scared? entertained? embarrassed? … My emotions will directly impact the way the message is heard, which is a message in itself.
If we are saying one thing, but feeling a different way about it… “Be careful with that glass when you’re pouring!” — but not trusting that they really can be careful — children feel our nervousness and become less confident in their own abilities.
By being aware of our emotions, we may transcend the habitual way we react… and respond more appropriately with the messages that promote confidence, trust, respect and authenticity.
- What is my agenda? Is this about getting something done, or promoting learning about how something is done?
In school children are given worksheets and word problems to analyze and find solutions, but in real life there are no worksheets and word problems, there are just situations and interactions. Both of which are there for us to learn about ourselves and the world. So, if we as adults jump in to help, or command, or tell what to do in a situation… aren’t we just writing in the answers for our kids? It is very easy to fall into the habit of ‘putting out fires’ (please read CoreParenting’s post on the topic). After taking a breath, we might notice that what seems to be a problem at first, is actually a fantastic learning opportunity.
- Do my words empower or take power from children?
Speaking to children in a way that allows them to make a choice, initiate internal locus of control, or have self awareness is empowering. Speaking to children that commands them to do something, imposes judgement (“this is good, that is bad”), or embarrasses them (“it’s not nice to hit”, “you’re being too loud”) takes away the power to discern and make up ones own opinion on subjects.
Empowering words are neutral and compassionate. They narrate and state the facts. “When you were running, you bumped into Kim, and she fell. That must be why she is crying.” Empowering words invite, rather than command: “Let’s look at Kim and see if she’s ok…” Empowering words are more detailed, slower and supportive. “I see you really want this toy, you are pulling it out of Joy’s hands. She wants to use it and she is holding on tight. I’m going to stay close and make sure your bodies stay safe while you two are figuring out what to do.” Empowering words give opportunity to think, and process. They are open-ended. “The water is pouring out very fast and the cup is getting full…”
Yes, they take a little more effort to say, than “Stop pulling.” or “Go say sorry.”, but their effect is much more beneficial in the long term.
- Am I speaking at children or with them?
Being with children requires keen awareness and mindful presence. This is not an easy feat when there is food to be cooked, calls to be answered, laundry, cleaning, errands, tasks, tasks, tasks. It is easy to shout out a command, or send out short reactions to their behavior. Of course there is a time and place for everything, and the standards need not be set to 100% awareness all of the time, that’s stressful to even think about.
But we can start by noticing how we are relaying our message. When we step next to, and come down face to face, connect with our child’s presence, we can then have a better perspective of their experience. We can gently enter their world, and show them that we are there to work with them, and not intimidate or control them (for a quick fix). We take time to listen to them, and narrate what’s happening. We become their closest friend, and let compassion guide us in responding.
- Am I being genuine and honest?
Children can sense insincerity and condescendence a mile away. Take the famous parenting phrase “because I said so” (hopefully less widely used than before), does it seem like a respectful thing to say? Is it genuine and honest? Would it be more informative to say, “I know you want to keep playing, but I am just feeling too tired right now, and I would like to leave.” Being honest and real with your kids is more likely to promote understanding, and less likely to promote resentment.
- How is “small-talk” affecting children?
In many of the preschool classes I’ve taught, one of the first morning interactions with kids involves them showing new something to me. New dress, new toy, new shoes, new haircut… etc. This is a very interesting opportunity and I ponder about their experience. I think it’s pretty common practice to reply by sharing our opinion on something children are showing us… “What a pretty dress!”, “Those shoes are cool!”, “I like your new haircut, you look great!”…
Hmmm… I don’t know about you, but I think this sends some critical messages. If adults are giving much attention to the appearance of children, (clothes, age, behavior), is it natural to think that children will see these as important social values? (How I look. What’s cool? What’s pretty?)
I have thought much about this, and I’ve decided to add a shape of neutrality to my responses, and better yet, turn the response to ask the children themselves their opinion… rather than giving my own.
So, when Hugo comes up to show me his new shirt with a TV character on it, I may ask “What do you think about your shirt?” or I may say, “I notice it has long sleeves. Does it keep you warm?”, or I may say, “I see your shirt has some characters on it, tell me about them.”
When Penelope shows me her new summer dress, I may say, “You are showing me your new dress that grandma gave you, how did you feel when you saw it?” or, “You seem very excited about your new dress, how does it feel to wear it?”, “What do you notice about your dress?”
Another common practice I notice is the commenting on children’s age, when meeting them for the first time. We seem to have a habit of asking kids their age… what message does this send them? Well, maybe just asking them their age is not a huge message, but our response “wow, you’re such a big boy!”, or “you’re getting bigger” shares a lot of information about what adults value: You are valued on something that you have no control over — the passing of time. The older you are, the more you are valued.
Why do we not ask adults their age right when we meet them? Is it really that important, or do we just not know what else to ask kids about? Is it as appropriate as asking kids their weight, or height?
Words are more powerful than they seem. When we use them with sanctity our life improves, and the lives of those around us.
What are your thoughts on words? What are your experiences speaking with children, and remembering how you were spoken with when young?
(Photo: “If I’ve told you once…”, Courtesy of Andy M.Taylor, Flikr)