Speaking to kids: watching what we say & how we say it

Words and Atom Bombs copy

I’ve always known that words have power. Power to weave vivid stories that set my imagination afire, to cut my soul deeper than any knife, to bring hope when I sit in darkness. As a writer, I’m always seeking for the most accurate words, the ones that really communicate the abstract ideas swimming in my mind.

As a mother, I’ve found that the words I speak to my children have power to shape their actions and their perceptions of themselves. Both what I say and how I phrase things make a difference in how my children respond. I know this…and yet I still struggle more often that I like to admit to speak the kind, patient, loving words that I wish came more automatically right after my toddler has dumped his dinner on the floor. I still lose my patience, and every day I tell myself “I’ll try again tomorrow.” And I really do try.

So, as I share what I’ve learned so far about what to say–and what not to say–to kids, let me put out a big disclaimer: I am a HUGE work in progress on this one. But, I think it’s good stuff to try to do, and I hope you’ll find it useful too:

The three best pieces of advice I’ve received for what to say–and what NOT to say–to kids:

  1. Replace “Okay?” with “Got it?” One little word that so many of us casually throw into our interactions with our kids all the time: “It’s time to clean up now, okay?” or “Get your shoes on, okay?” Why, when we make a request, do we add “okay” to the end of it? What we want is to make sure that our children have heard us, right? But what it actually does is turn a command into a question that the child can then choose to obey…or not. When I think about it, adding “okay” completely negates our authority as parents to make a request and expect our children to obey. We say, “It’s time to go home now, okay?” and then we get frustrated when they don’t come right away. Well, we did ask them if it was okay with them, right? I’m all for kids having choices and for having a measure of control over their lives, but there are times that it’s simply not their choice. At those times, I’m now trying to replace “okay” with “got it.” This little phrase more accurately fulfills my goal to make my child acknowledge that he heard me. For example, “You have time to do one more puzzle and then we need to clean up, got it?” See how that little change leaves no room for debate? It simply asks for confirmation…end of discussion.
  2. Replace “If you…” with “When you…” We’ve all said it, “If you get in the car, I’ll give you a treat.” or “If you clean up your toys, you can play with your friend next door.” Bribery? Oh yes, I use it. But, I try to be really careful how I phrase my requests. If it’s something that has to happen regardless of whether my child wants it to, I never (at least I try not to) introduce the uncertainty of “if”. “If”, just like “okay” makes kids feel like obedience is optional. Instead, I want my boys to see their rewards as natural result of complying with my request. So I say, “When you are sitting in your seat, then we can go to the park” or “When you’ve gone potty, then you can watch a TV show.” The only time I intentionally use “if” now is when describing bad behavior that will earn negative consequences: “If you choose to leave your toys on the floor, then I will put them up high and you won’t be able to play with them” or “If you choose to hit your brother, then you will go play by yourself in your room until you can be kind.”
  3. Replace “no” with “yes” imagery. Stop hitting! What did you just picture in your mind? Was it the hitting or the stopping? If you’re like me, you imagined one of your adorable little children walloping another child–probably one who was smaller and innocent of any real wrongdoing. Because they’re angels like that. Now try this: “Be gentle.” What did you picture this time? I have a lovely little image in my mind of my three-year-old petting my one-year-old like a puppy. Maybe not ideal, but certainly less violent than the previous image. Our brains are wired to turn words into mental pictures. However, they’re wired to focus on the action words, not the “no”-type words. That means that even when we say no or stop, our child’s mind is wired to picture the “bad” action, thus reinforcing it. So, if you’re tired of your bathroom turning it into a floodplain during bath time, instead of yelling at little Jamie to stop splashing, tell him to “keep the water in the tub.” Instead of “don’t climb over the couch,” try “go around the couch, please.”

These are all really small differences in semantics, but I’ve seen it make a difference in how my kids respond to me. When we think a little deeper about what we’re REALLY saying, we can use words to help our children be the best kiddos they can be.

Do you have any advice for what to say or not to say to kids that has made a difference in your home?


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