Have you ever listened to your children talking and thought: “They sound just like me!” Children are like sponges, soaking up everything around them, and it can be funny to hear them parroting back expressions you use regularly at home. But the fact they take in so much – often much more than we’re aware of – means we have to be very careful about the language we use when communicating with them (that’s not only because we don’t know what they’ll repeat at an inopportune moment).
The way we speak to our children and the words we use can have a huge impact on everything from their behaviour to their future self-esteem. By being more conscious of the language we use, and how we phrase things, we can have a profound positive impact on their personalities. Here are the most common traps we can fall into…
I can’t do it … ‘yet’
Children come into the world being able to do almost nothing and quickly have to figure out how to crawl, walk, talk, feed themselves and far more. They are constantly learning and often become frustrated by not being able to achieve everything they want to do straight away.
Whether you’re helping your preschooler write their first letters or your teenager with their algebra homework, you’ll almost certainly hear this phrase at some point: “I can’t do it!”
You might be tempted to respond by telling them they can, but this doesn’t acknowledge the frustration they’re feeling. And, in truth, they may well not be able to perform that task at that moment in time. That’s why the best response is this: “You can’t do it… yet.”
Adding the word “yet” helps build a growth mindset – a belief we aren’t born with a fixed set of skills but can achieve new ones with practise and persistence. Children with a growth mindset are more likely to try new things and to bounce back from failure.
Raising ‘clever’ girls, not merely ‘beautiful’ ones
No doubt, if you have daughters, you are struck by how pretty they are. And no doubt, you want to tell them this regularly – as well you should. It’s important, however, not to fixate on their physical attributes, no matter how well-intentioned the compliments are.
We live in a society in which the pressure to conform to an “ideal” appearance has never been more noticeable. Social media, reality TV and celebrity culture all contribute to girls’ and young women’s feeling that they must look a certain way. Studies show that about half of teenage girls have been on a diet, and one in three girls of a healthy weight have tried to lose weight regardless.
No one is suggesting you never tell your daughter how good she looks. But, by praising her for how clever she is – and how brave, funny and kind – you will send a message that her looks are merely one aspect of what makes her precious.
In the same vein, we need to remember not only to praise our sons for being clever and brave, but also for being thoughtful, empathetic and nice. By doing so, we help combat the equally damaging toxic masculinity that boys are subject to today.
You’re not bad, your behaviour is
When our children act out, it’s natural to want to correct them and show them the error of their ways. After all, how will they learn, if we don’t? Our job as parents is to help them navigate what’s right and wrong, which means discipline is important. But it’s vital that this does not lead to shame.
That’s why we need to separate the person from his or her behaviour. If your child does something wrong, avoid telling them that they’ve been “bad”. Instead, tell them their behaviour was bad, so they can focus on doing something different rather than being someone different. By making this distinction, your child will learn they are still valued, respected and loved, regardless of their choices. From this secure position, they are much more likely to change their behaviour.
Focus on the positives
“Don’t hit your sister” … “Don’t jump on the sofa” … “Don’t talk with your mouth full”. Do you ever feel like you’re constantly telling your kids what not to do? It’s only natural – children, especially young ones, do a lot of things they shouldn’t. But the problem with telling someone not to do something is that it subconsciously focuses them on the very behaviour you’re trying to deter. It’s similar to when someone says, “Don’t think of a red balloon!” Naturally, one will immediately pop into your head. It’s just the way the mind works.
The alternative is to focus on the positive outcomes you’d like to see. For example: “Be kind to your sister” ... “Only jump on the floor” ... “Swallow first, talk second”.
It’s OK to be angry or sad
When a child falls over, skins a knee and starts to cry, often our first instinct is to comfort them and say, “There, there, don’t cry, don’t be sad…” This is well-intentioned – you don’t want to see your little one unhappy – but it’s important not to send a message that being sad or crying is somehow wrong or weak.
This advice is especially important for boys, who are often taught that crying or expressing emotion in general is somehow unmanly and that they ought to be “brave” instead.
The same goes for anger. While many expressions of rage are unacceptable – shouting, hitting and so on – the feeling itself isn’t wrong. Admonishing our children for their emotions isn’t helpful. Instead, we need to help them express their feelings healthily.
In the same way we distinguish people from actions, try to separate the feeling itself from the expression of that feeling. That way, your child will learn how to moderate and express their reactions appropriately.
Parenting can be really tough at times and it’s easy to wonder whether all our efforts are having any impact. Words are powerful – they have the ability to build up and tear down. By choosing them carefully, we can help shape our children into confident, contented and considerate adults.