Your Words Really Do Matter
Plenty of parents have been at their wits’ end when words rolled off their tongue that they later wished had remained unspoken. You’re not alone, and you’re definitely not the “World’s Worst Parent” if you’ve ever found yourself saying, “Use that big head of yours,” or “How dumb can you be?” When is the last time you have taken a moment to reflect on your words and how impactful they are not only to yourself but to your family?
“Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” —Proverbs 15:4
“Our words create our world,” says Dr. Justin Coulson, father of six and best-selling author of “10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know” and “9 Ways to a Resilient Child.” He continues, “Whatever direction your words lead, your mind and body will follow. We believe what we tell ourselves. Language is powerful. Words don’t just affect us and the way we see ourselves. They affect the way we see our children.”
When Coulson asked a frustrated mother to describe her teenage daughter, the mother said things like, “She’s disrespectful. She’s wasteful. She treats our house like a hotel.” But when he asked the mother about her daughter’s strengths, she talked about how caring and generous her daughter was and the fact that she was a great sister. It was almost as if she was describing two different people.
“The language we use about one another, and towards each other, impacts how we see one another,” Coulson shares. He suggests that there are ways we can say things that are not helpful and may be harmful.
Here are some phrases Coulson encourages parents not to use, along with better ways to express the same sentiment.
“You are so upset.”
Telling someone to calm down has the opposite effect. It’s dismissive, and it denies emotions. Instead, focus on labeling the emotion. If you can name it, you can tame it.
“You’re so clever.”
“How did you feel when…”
Research indicates that praise leads to inferences of low ability. The best thing you can do is turn it back on the person/child. For instance, you could say, “Hey, you seem really happy with that outcome. Tell me what you did to get it.”
“Ugh, you’re just like your mother.”
“Wow, this is really challenging for you.”
Avoid comparisons. Highlight what you’re observing. You could say, “In these situations, you seem to struggle with…” Then, offer to help.
“Because I said so.”
“Let me tell you why this matters.”
It’s not bad to provide an explanation, even to children. They’re curious. When people have a rationale for the requests you’re making, they’re far more likely to be compliant.
“I was lousy at that.”
“It’s amazing what we can do when we try.”
Can’t yet doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t ever. You can promote a growth mindset by highlighting what happens when you have a go at it, put some effort into it, and work hard at something.
“Don’t be so stupid.”
Simply pause, and walk away. You won’t motivate others by making them feel lousy about themselves. If they’re doing something stupid, ask them to stop. Stupid to you may not seem stupid to them. Be curious, not cranky. There is always a reason for challenging behavior.
“Saying horrible things to others is every bit as damaging as other forms of abuse,” according to Coulson. “It affects cognitive function. Things will come out of our mouths that will hurt. The trick is to say fewer of those things and to build our children up.”