Sunday, August 29, 2010

Weekly Column: Your Words Are Truth

Looking at me through the corner of her eye, my daughter was defiant.

She’d just committed an act so grievous, so outlawed, that I knew she fully expected an immediate reaction: she’d spoken rudely to me.

As much as I wish it weren’t, this is one of our most common battles. The rude tone, the hateful attitude, and the careless rebuttals creep into our days more often than I’d like. I welcome her honest thoughts as long as they’re spoken respectfully, but after a day of moody arguments, it was hard to keep my cool.

Breathing deeply, I went over my options.

I could lose my temper and growl out my true feelings (‘Why do you sound so hateful?!’), but those would hardly help her learn how to control her temper. And more importantly, I thought, the words I would use to tell her how she was behaving would be nasty words. Words I don’t want her to associate with herself.

The other option, the harder option, was to sit down quietly and tell her why the words she’d used were unacceptable. And to do this while teaching her a better alternative (‘You need to speak kindly.’). I needed to teach her that words and attitudes can hurt people – that words carry power and she needs to learn how to use that power with kindness.

And this is a lesson that I try to remind myself of daily. Our words are powerful. Since I never want to use them in ways that will hurt my kids, I try to weave respect and kindness into every encounter, even – especially – the negative encounters. This becomes more and more difficult as their defiance and boundary-testing ways grow, but that’s also why it’s more important: the way we respond to our kids at this age can set the tone for what they believe about themselves in the future.

If my toddler is being crazily rambunctious all day or if my preschooler is being bossy and demanding, I’m tempted to call their behavior ‘irritating,’ ‘naughty,’ or just flat out ‘terrible’. But to say those words to her in a fit of frustration, I think it’s possible that I’d be placing that descriptor around her neck like a yoke: something she’ll grow into until eventually, she doesn’t give it a second thought. Until it becomes something she just accepts about herself.

It’s not easy to separate that behavior from the child who is only going through an expected developmental stage. It can be difficult not to break her down by telling her all the ways she’s misbehaving, but constantly reminding her of her ‘terrible’ attitude, or her ‘ugly’ behavior raises the chance that I could be creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of behavioral standards. She’ll internalize my words as truth, and expect nothing more of herself than what I’ve already given her as a label.

At the same time, it’s important to strive for giving good descriptors for her to grow into. When my children behave with kindness or generosity or thoughtfulness, I want to help them recognize and love that about themselves. I’d rather build them up with positive truths than tear them down with negativity.

That’s not to say I won’t be honest with my children about the ways they behave wrongly. If I want them to know the pitfalls and avoid them, I have to help them see where to step. But I have to do it respectfully. I have to do it without breaking them down.

I have to do it knowing that the words I choose to teach them with are powerful.

[Online version here.]


  1. I'm so glad you wrote about this - you hit it right on the nose! This is something I've been becoming more and more aware of as my chickie starts to wander further into toddlerhood. Recently I heard myself say, in response to her defiant screaming, "don't be ugly." I heard it, and then I wanted to sink through the floor. I was carelessly parroting something I've heard parents say to their misbehaving kids, but when I said it to MY baby, I could suddenly see all the consequences of an awful label like that. I realized that careless just isn't an option any more, because every word matters. Yikes!

  2. This is such a struggle! There are moments when I my voice is less then respectful. I don't like it. But even in those, my bad moments, I try to remember to criticize the action and not the child. Praise and criticism are both doled out as specifically as possible. And on days when there has been too much disrespect, too much unkindness; I sit down and find specific instances of the opposite behavior to say, you are this too.
    Great column.


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