THE IMPACT OF WORDS – To Inflict Harm Or Breathe Life
Words have a powerful impact on children – they can either build them up or tear them down. Parents have an incredible opportunity to shape their children’s future through the words that they speak. But looking around me and reflecting on my own childhood, I realised that many parents in Singapore are far from encouraging.
In some cases, parents can use words that are really damaging. Yelling over a small matter, or even a simple “tsk” in response to an interruption.
“Why are you so lazy?”
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
“You are so fat. You should stop eating so much junk food.”
“Like this also don’t know? So stupid. Hopeless!”
Such words may be said out of worry or frustration, slipping out without parents meaning to. Sometimes, they say it lightly, not meaning it at all. But these words strike the hearts of children, especially when it comes from adults they love. Their confidence and self-esteem can take a hit, their feelings get hurt, and these negative words certainly aren’t easy to forget.
The axe forgets; the tree remembers.
How can we be mindful of our words so that our children are not hurt?
Be generous with praise. Children are often reprimanded for what they have done wrong and seldom praised for good behaviour.
Focus more on your child’s strengths and praise them – even if it’s for something small, like cleaning up after themselves. This will help to reinforce positive behaviours and build their self-esteem.
Praise effort in relation to outcomes, with emphasis on learning and progress. Solely praising a child’s ability (“You’re so smart!”) conveys a fixed mindset – the belief that abilities are fixed.
Children may then be worried about mistakes and avoid challenges. By praising effort (and sitting down with them to figure out what they can try next), we convey a growth mindset – the idea that abilities can be developed. This teaches children to be more persistent when they face challenges.
Focus on their behaviour and avoid labelling. When disciplining your children, avoid using words like lazy, naughty or stupid. Labels do not help children learn acceptable behaviour. Instead, correct your child’s negative behaviour by explaining how their action was inappropriate. Assure them that you love them but do not approve their wrong behaviour.
The power of a sincere apology. Sometimes, we get carried away with our tone and words in the heat of the moment. Hearing “I’m sorry,” followed by a parent admitting their wrongdoing, is an immeasurable and powerful gift for a child.
It shows them that you care about their hurt feelings and want to do better. It models healthy communication and teaches children that it’s okay to make mistakes.
Be your child’s cheerleader. Believing in your child is powerful. I would like to share an excerpt from a blog post written by Dema Kohen, a native Ukrainian turned American Citizen. He writes about how his mother’s words and beliefs in him helped him to believe in himself:
I watched an American missionary speak through a translator for the very first time. The missionary would open his mouth and speak, what sounded to my ears, like complete jibberish. Then the translator would open his mouth and everything would suddenly become clear.
I remember feeling like I was at a magic show. As I was enjoying this amazing display, my mother leaned toward me and whispered,
“One day YOU will be doing this. You will be translating.”
Those words could not have been more ridiculous. At that point I had been taking English at school (I had no choice) and I was at the bottom of my class. Nothing about the language made any sense to me and I couldn’t wait to be done with the class altogether.
My mom’s words painted a bold and beautiful picture of what my future could look like. She gave me a vision of who I could become. I am so glad that she didn’t focus on who I was at that time. I am glad that she didn’t define me by my terrible language skills and low grades. She looked beyond all of that AND believed in me.
That night I borrowed her faith and dared to believe that one day I would stand on a stage listening to an English speaker and translating their speech into Russian.
Of course, I didn’t know English immediately after my mom spoke that phrase. I had to spend many, many hours learning it and practicing, but on that night something shifted inside of me. Her words opened the door to a beautiful possibility and gave me the courage to take the very first step.
Let’s be mindful of the messages we send to our children. By using positive language and showing our children that we believe in them and their abilities, we can help them develop a strong sense of self-worth and confidence that will serve them well throughout their lives.