What We Say, What We Teach

We want our children to know our values. For example, we want them to hear our opinions about justice, peace, war, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

But there are times when our opinions might not be very helpful to a child, like when those opinions are about the child. Consider the way we talk to and about our children, and how our opinions, both positive and negative, can effect them.

Most of us assume that when we talk to our kids, we should be positive: “I like that drawing!” “What a good job you did with that project!” “I’m so proud of you!” We give children our opinions, and though we make an attempt to keep our opinions positive, there’s a good chance that the overall effect is not always positive. The problem with opinions is they establish a kind of merit system that is unsustainable. Because either you only give positive opinions (which sets your child up to imagine they only do great work), or you respond honestly to their efforts, with legitimate criticism, which is not really the best role for a parent to play (and can be exhausting for the child). Think about it: would you criticize according to adult standards (harsh!), or would you compare your child’s work to that of their peers? “The immaturity of your drawing can be excused, but it isn’t really showing the depth of emotional understanding that is common among your classmates.” Yeah, weird.

The other side of the coin is when we talk about our children with other adults, when we think we’re out of earshot. Here we can be a bit negative, because this is where we voice our anxieties, our frustrations, our fears. We think we are out of earshot, but it isn’t easy avoiding the curious, listening ear of a child. Children pay very close attention to what their parents say. And what is it like to hear your parents talk about you with other adults? Even things we might think are not essentially negative can sound negative in this context: “He’s very shy! I can’t get him to play with other kids!”; “She can’t handle much more of this event … I can tell she’s about to melt down; we’ll be leaving soon!”; “He’ll never eat that, he hates vegetables!” ….

What kind of communication can we replace these examples with? Are there better ways to talk to and about our children?

When a child is working hard on a task, and an adult says, “Wow, what a great outcome!”, what does this do? If their work is indeed great beyond expectation, then … wow, great! … But what will we say when it isn’t?. Rather than express an opinion (which is akin to a judgment), better to speak to the child’s experience. “You are being so careful with your work!”, or “Drawing is hard, but you’re working at it.” Speaking to the experience is judgement-free, and can be a real encouragement to a child, even helping them find words they can use to describe their own complex feelings. But kids can be pretty judgmental toward themselves. Without going along with the judgement, we can validate their feelings. When they are frustrated, or tear up a picture they’ve been working on, we shouldn’t be afraid of their strong feelings or try to make them feel better. Instead of “But that was a great drawing!”, we might say, “You’re very frustrated and you wanted to tear that picture up! … Maybe you’ll draw another one.” Agreeing with a frustrated child validates and encourages them in a way that misplaced praise (“But I loved that picture”) can never do.

And, talking about a child to others when that child is around? How about just not doing it. Don’t express opinions about your child when they are nearby, for all the reasons we’ve mentioned so far. Either you will reveal your anxieties in a way that they shouldn’t have to bear, or you will be tempted to false enthusiasm. If you are about to leave an event because you know your child is about to melt down, how about instead of blaming them for needing to leave, express some solidarity with them … “I’m feeling kind of tired, this has been fun, but I think we’re going to go home.” Children will pick up on their impact on your life, and if you are able to speak to the experience of a tiring day, without naming them as the reason it has to end, they will be less burdened. Less, “He’s about to blow! We’d better go!”; more “This has been a long day, let’s go home and have some family time. I’m ready to relax!”

One of the great things we get to teach our children is that life is not all about performance. Life is about experience, and the way we talk to and about our children is one of our great teaching tools.


[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

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