I want you to think for a moment about the interactions that you have with other adults. When a friend or shopkeeper speaks to you in a harsh tone, does it have an impact on the way that you feel about that person? And does it also affect the way that you feel about yourself?
You bet! We get a feeling of dissatisfaction, we rehash every nitty gritty detail, we may even try to find the flaw within ourselves that contributed to the situation. “Did I do something wrong, is that why she spoke to me so rudely?”.
I think you know where I’m going with this.
The way that we speak to our children matters.
The content, the tone, the intent, but most of all, the specific words used.
Let me tell you a story. Last school holidays I took my 3 children to Monarto Zoo. It was a brilliant day, dry weather, lots to see and discover and of course, I had the beautiful company of my tribe.
Like many other open plains zoos, Monarto has buses that take you from place to place, allowing you to see the varied animals in their own habitats. This, of course, means waiting, lots of waiting!
Now, waiting isn’t something that most children do very well and my 3 children are certainly no exception to the rule. When the inevitable grumbles came, I explained that I knew how they felt, yes waiting can be boring and I don’t like it much either, however at times it is necessary. To fill in the gap we sang some songs, ate our picnic and read a storybook we had brought. There was no big fuss, in the grand scheme of our adventure that day, waiting at the bus stop was just a tiny part.
In complete contrast was the experience of another family who we bumped into at several bus stops. Mum, Dad and their 2 children (roughly 2 & 4) appeared to be tensely enduring the day.Their eldest child had energy to burn and was doing so in safe ways, jumping and hopping at a safe distance from the dirt road. “Don’t be naughty” said Dad. Next the energy was channelled into climbing and balancing on the makeshift wooden benches. “I SAID, stop being NAUGHTY” said Dad. In the next 10 minutes, I observed some very creative movements which were all met with reactivity. Gruff replies which indicated there was something wrong with the boy’s inability to stand still and be silent in his own company. Let’s think about this…a 4 year old being still, silent and calm on his way to see the lions…REALLY?
What core messages are your children learning about themselves?
I did truly feel for this family. Their experience of existing together did not look like fun for any of them, least of all the parents. And they are by no means alone in the way they were speaking to their children. I constantly hear phrases like “don’t be naughty”, “don’t be so silly”, “you’re annoying” and so on.
It may not seem much, especially if you’re accustomed to using these words yourself. However, it really is a damaging way of speaking to children. Why? Because children don’t detach themselves from the behaviour you’re stating.
If we tell them that they are naughty, this will become part of their identity, a self-fulfilling prophecy of low self-worth and risk-taking.
If we say they’re silly for expressing their valid feelings, they will suppress and internalise what’s going on in their head, instead creating a persona of themselves for the world to see.
If we say that they’re annoying, they will believe that no one in the world will find them interesting or worthy.
As parents, we are the key one or two people whom our children model their understandings about communication, the world around them and most of all, themselves. Educators come in at a close second.
Time for a change?
Focus on how you want your child to feel about themselves as an adult and the way that you’d like them to interact with the world. Now model that in the way you speak to them.
“The way we talk to children becomes their inner voice”. Peggy O’Mara