Language is a huge part of our world and of our daily experience. We encounter words all day long: in early morning talk shows, podcasts, books, newspapers, social media, conversations around the dinner table, and especially in 4 year old girls who don’t take breaths in between sentences or talk about topics that are linked together in any logical way. But I digress.
Words are powerful. As parents, we have often heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Our examples matter greatly to our kids, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean we can discount the impact of our words. Especially when we are intentional about them. I love this reminder from author Peggy O’Mara: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
Here are six phrases that we strive to use intentionally in our family.
1) Everyone makes mistakes.
This one’s a no-brainer, for adults. Obviously we all make mistakes. To kids, however, mistakes can be a huge deal and can trigger frustration, anger, and embarrassment. Right now most of the mistakes in my house require paper towels and some sort of cleaning solution. However, there will come a day where the mistakes are bigger than crayons on the wall and milk splattered on the floor. When those ‘big’ mistakes happen, I want this phrase to be ingrained in our family’s DNA so that my kids know they always have a safe place to make, and share, their mistakes.
We also make a point to name our own mistakes, so that our kids learn that we are not perfect (duh) and don’t need to try to be, either. Proof that using this phrase is becoming a part of our family’s narrative? When my mom was visiting last weekend, she spilled barbecue sauce on the floor. She started to apologize and Charlee immediately said, “It’s okay, Grandma! Everyone makes mistakes!”
2) I’m sorry because…
This one goes in all directions in our family: grown-ups to grown-ups, kids to grown-ups, grown-ups to kids, kids to kids…you get the idea. There is no question of if we are going to do something that requires an apology; it’s simply when and how often. (See above!) And when those things happen, we apologize. We all expect our kids to say sorry to us, and to each other. How are they going to learn to do that if they don’t see it modeled first?
We also make a point to say more than the cursory “I’m sorry” which can be said so easily (and often without sincere emotion). When Charlee apologizes to Evelyn, or to us, we have her say, “I’m sorry because I didn’t use nice words” so that she actually links her action with the apology, and we do the same for her.
3) I love watching you __________________.
I read an article suggesting parents use this phrase with their kids a few years ago, and I have found it very valuable. We can inadvertently put a lot of pressure on our kids to perform in a certain way, simply with the language we use. For example, if your child plays soccer and they score a goal, you naturally want to focus on their great accomplishment. “That was an amazing kick! You scored a goal for your team! I’m so proud of you!” While this is absolutely positive and will make your child feel good in the moment, it can also convey the message that you are happy because of what the child did.
Using the phrase “I love watching you ______” takes the pressure off of the kids. A simple “I love watching you play soccer!” makes your child feel affirmed whether they kicked the game-winning goal, or spent the game picking dandelions in the field. We say this to Charlee and Evelyn often. “I love watching you sing/dance/dress-up/draw/ride your bike!” tells them that we enjoy seeing them do what they enjoy, whether or not they are “good” at it. (::cough:: singing ::cough::)
4) You worked really hard.
I love using this phrase because it praises effort instead of a fixed attribute such as intelligence. For example, when Charlee completes a task such as a difficult puzzle, I would say “Wow! You worked so hard on that puzzle, and kept going even when it was tricky!” instead of saying, “Wow! You’re so smart!” (Of course, I only say this if she actually was trying hard, so that it’s not empty praise.)
When we focus on effort, kids realize that they can affect their outcomes by how hard they try, and the strategies they use. If intelligence is praised, they just think they are smart; which means if they fail, they believe they are not smart. There is a lot of research and buzz around this concept of “growth mindset” right now, and it’s being implemented in many schools. Here’s some more info about how parents can help their kids develop a growth mindset.
5) I love you when ________ …..and God loves you MOST!
Whenever we are having a discipline conversation, this is the phrase we start with. (Try to start with. Discipline is always a work in progress.) More than anything else, I want my girls to always know that they are loved, regardless of their actions. This does not mean that I always love the way they act, or that they will not have consequences. In fact, giving consequences is actually a really important way that we love our kids, but that’s another post.
So if, hypothetically, Charlee were to be sent to her room after not sharing with her sister (purely hypothetical), our conversation would start like this. “Charlee, I love you when I’m frustrated. I love you when you’re upset. I love you when you don’t share. I love you even when you’re not being kind to your sister.” We’ve done this enough times in our house that at this point she usually chimes in. “And God loves me most!” Then we discuss the issue and the consequences.
6) In this family we ________
Okay, this one is not just a shameless plug for the name of this blog, we actually use this phrase often! Having a strong family identity helps kids to be confident in who they are and lets them discover their own place in the world, from the safety and security of their families. This is the base level of beginning to develop a family identity, as we name for our kids what we do, or do not do, in our families.
We use this in many different contexts. In this family, we use kind words. In this family, we help each other. In this family, we don’t say “_____.” This is the first way that we, as Christian parents, start to teach our kids that our families are going to be different from others they observe or interact with, without pronouncing judgement. As a bonus, it’s also a great way to remind a kiddo of appropriate behavior, without engaging in the power struggle of a direct command. Try “In our family, we sit in our chairs at the dinner table,” instead of, “You need to sit down in your chair!”
What else do you say in your family?