Sunday, January 30, 2011

Our Kids and the Power of Our Words

Something that has been on my heart and in my thoughts a LOT lately is the power of our words when we speak about our kids.

We've all done it... or at least heard someone do it...

You are out and about, and your child is behaving really well. A stranger or maybe a friend stops to comment:

"She is such a good girl!"

And then it happens. You reply with a "Well, she's not always this good. You should see her at home. I'm just waiting for her to fall apart any minute."

I don't know why we do this as mothers, but it seems like we often feel the need to temper positive, glowing comments about our child with more realistic ones that remind others of our child's many imperfections.

I have definitely been guilty of this on more than one occasion and have also heard many other Mama's do the same thing.

Lately, it has really come to my attention how much these words affect our children's behavior.

We may not realize it, but our kids hear the comments we make about them. And it really does affect their behavior in a negative way.

Kids live up to the reputation you give them.

If you are constantly referring to them as a troublemaker or a sassy-pants, they will live up to it. That is why it is SO important to speak positive words about our kids every chance we get, look for the best in them and give them a good reputation to live up to.

I was recently talking to my friend Cassi about this, and she recounted a child psychology study she read that really impacted her. It went like this: (sorry if I butcher it, Cas!)

A couple had a little girl who was quite the little discipline problem. She was always getting into mischeif. Therefore, they had given her the nickname of "Little Devil." They would say it affectionately, like "Here comes our little devil!" I'm sure they didn't mean to be critical and just thought it was a silly nickname for a sassy little girl.

Upon asking for advice on how to deal with their child's behavior issues, someone suggested that they begin calling their child a more positive nickname. So instead of "Little Devil" they began calling her their "Little Lamb."

And the miracle is that within a week or two, this little girl's behavior completely turned around. Just from that one change. Her parents gave her a reputation of being a sweet, gentle girl, and she lived up to it.

Isn't that amazing? We as parents are largely responsible for our kids' self-esteem and helping them to identify who they are. When we speak positive words into their lives, even if it's not always true in that moment, we are helping to shape their personality is such a positive way.

Of course behavioral issues need to be addressed and dealt with. Those of you who know me know that disrespect and disobedience are not acceptable in our home. BUT the words we use when we deal with these things are HUGE in determining our child's behavior.

I've really noticed with Bennett how down he gets when I use negative words regarding his behavior. He shuts down, and I really can't get through. For instance one of the issues we have been dealing with is play-hitting and being too aggressive at school. My natural tendency is to say something like:
"Bennett. You NEED to stop hitting your friends at school. You really have a problem with keeping your hands to yourself. That is unacceptable."

All of those things are true. Hitting is not acceptable. But the problem is, this statement gives my son the reputation of being an aggressive hitter. It doesn't really help him. It just makes the problem worse.

So lately, I've been trying something more along the lines of this:
"Hey Benny, I want to talk for a minute about hitting your friends. You are a sweet, gentle boy, and that's not the way sweet, gentle boys treat their friends. I know your heart and that you don't want to hurt others. You want to please Jesus! Let's really work on keeping our hands to ourselves next time."

Notice, that I'm still addressing the behavior as unacceptable. I'm not giving him the impression that he is perfect and can do no wrong. And he will probably still have a consequence. ("I know you want to do the right thing, so Mom is going to help you remember not to hit by taking away your TV privileges for the rest of the day.") The main difference is not the end but the means. There are still consequences, but just explained in a different way.

And you know something... it works! A few weeks ago, Bennett's teacher pulled me aside to tell me how great he has been in school and how he has blossomed and developed so much more self-control. I really see so many more behavior improvements when I am using positive words.

Think about it. What do YOU respond better to? Let's say you said something really unkind about another person and a friend approached you about it.

Would you respond better to this,
"Wow, that was mean. I didn't realize you were such a mean person. I'm so disappointed in you."

Or this?
"I was really surprised to hear you say those unkind words, because you are such a sweet person. Is everything okay?"
Which one would turn your behavior around and cause you to have a change of heart? For sure, the second one. The first statement would just make you angry, embarrassed and probably cause you to say more unkind words.

I'm definitely no parenting or psychology expert. I get it wrong more often than not. But this just makes so much sense to me and has been so helpful that I thought I'd share. Maybe you have a recurring problem that your child is dealing with. I really encourage you to speak as many positive words as you can in that particular area, giving your child a great reputation to live up to. Please let me know if it works for you as well as it has for me!


  1. This is SUCH an encouragement. I really want to be intentional about doing this, especially with our "Little Lamb."

    (I tried to post a comment like 3 times yesterday but it wouldn't let me. So sorry if this posts several times.)

  2. enjoyed our chat about this last week and have been thinking about it since then. i think it's also a good habit to get into when people compliment your kids to say, "thank you! s/he really is so sweet/such a joy/makes us laugh, etc." xoxo

  3. Thank you! Great insight we sometimes forget as moms "in the trenches" of child rearing.