Janet frequently advises us not to focus on trying to say the “right” words when we’re engaging with our kids. Why? Because regardless of the words we’re using, our children usually sense what we are feeling and how we are perceiving them moment to moment. So, generally, memorized scripts or phrases aren’t going to be as important as our true feelings and intentions. However, in this episode, Janet switches gears to describe 3 situations where our words actually do matter. In these instances, word choices can affect our perceptions of our children, hinder our ability to connect with them, and impede other goals we have as parents. None of us are perfect, of course, nor would our kids wish us to be, but awareness of the impact of our words can make our lives easier.
Transcript of “Words That Get In Our Way”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different. I’m actually countering my general advice to not focus on words that we say with children but more on our perception of the situation. Because what children sense is actually how we feel when we’re acknowledging their feelings, when we’re giving them boundaries, when we’re helping them with their behavior that’s gone off track. I still believe that the words we say, the scripts that we use, are the least important thing. What matters most is how we’re perceiving our child in these moments and our role with them and, therefore, the feelings that we have that come through.
However, there are some instances where our words can make a big difference in that they interfere with our goals to have an easier time as a parent, be effective, and help our child to flourish and meet their potential. So in this episode I’ll be talking about those instances, why they matter, and what we can do instead.
One of the big ways that our words can have a negative effect, the words that we say —the words that we think, even— these affect one of the most important aspects of parenting, which is our perceptions. For example, there are books, quite popular ones, and websites and statements people make, including parenting advisors, where children are referred to as brats and a-holes, and they’re bullies, they’re naughty, mean, they’re drunks, terrorists, beasts that need to be tamed. It’s become culturally acceptable.
And don’t get me wrong, I have a sense of humor. And while there’s no harm in once in a while saying to your partner or your friend, Oh gosh, they were such a brat today, Oh, they’re in a bratty phase, or It feels so mean, the way they’re acting. That’s something that almost everybody I know does. Those are thoughts and sharing that is actually, I would say, important just in relieving our stress, having a sense of humor about our child’s behavior, laughing a little bit at what’s going on.
But when we regularly think this way and talk this way, and maybe even say these things to our child, we’re cementing images in our mind that are not going to help us, because they create a divide. They create an “us against them.” Our child is sort of the enemy or the problem in the situation. So we create a hurdle for ourselves that makes it so much harder to connect, empathize, respond, and guide in the way that our children need, and that we need.
And these kinds of terms and words can also label and classify children in a fixed manner. Especially when we regularly say them in front of our children, but even if we’re consistently thinking of our child that way. And when we share these types of terms associated with children, we perpetuate these societal views that can be hard to shake. So I’m talking about naughty, mean, brats, bullies, even shy. These kinds of labels. I mean, I looked up “bully”, and one of the main definitions is “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable.” Now, maybe this is true of an older child, but a three-year-old is not seeking to intimidate those they perceive as vulnerable. Children aren’t intentional when they do these kinds of behaviors. They’re acting out of dysregulation or shame, their discomfort, their fear. So when we talk about a child this way, or think of our own child that way, it’s going to be so much harder to help that child to stop having that kind of behavior, to feel more safe and connected with us. And calling a child shy. I got that as a child, and it became this thing I had to overcome, this problem that I had, that made it harder for me to engage with people or connect. It made me want to even more withdraw into my shell.
So any time we’re using these fixed-mindset terms, we’re making it harder for our child to grow and develop, pass through these behaviors, and for ourselves to see that maybe these are actions, but they’re not nouns. And that’s the way I would try to use them, as maybe behavior that seems bullying, or sometimes we feel shy. But it’s not who our child is. It’s a momentary behavior. So these are descriptors of actions rather than of people. That’s how we continue to have the best mindset, which is a growth mindset. Our children are developing so quickly.
But again, before I start sounding like this humorless, prissy person, what matters is the daily diet. Parents often reach out to me concerned because they don’t use those terms, but maybe other people do around their child: a relative or friend. And that concerns the parent, naturally, that they’re not using these terms, but their child is hearing them from someone else. In my experience, in my view, I don’t believe we need to worry about that. It’s okay for our children to hear the perceptions that other people have, and if our child seems upset or puzzled by it, we can bring it up later. They called you naughty. That’s the way, sometimes, people see that kind of behavior. But I know that you were so tired and that’s why you were doing those things.
So let’s try not to take on too many responsibilities. Our jobs are hard enough as parents, we don’t have to try to control or be overly concerned about the way other people engage with our child. It’s that consistent daily diet, and it’s much more important how we perceive them and the terms we use.
But going back to the message that I usually share about how words are not as important as how we feel, that’s also true in these cases. So if we’re being playful with our child, we say something like, Ooh, that was very naughty of you. Or, Ah, I’m feeling shy. Are you feeling shy? You know, there are ways that we can use the words that don’t take on these negative, distancing, judgmental connotations.
So that’s the first instance where words can get in our way, the way they affect our perceptions, and therefore our child’s.
The second instance where our words can get in the way is when we use swear words or words that have oomph behind them, our child feels that power in those words. Or even if they don’t, if we use a lot of swear words with emphasis, like we usually do when we say those kinds of words, then children will naturally repeat those. Because that’s what they do. They are explorers and they explore the oomph and the power and the accentuation of those words. So, they will imitate those.
And parents might not see that as a problem. I would consider, though, that one of the goals most of us have is to set our children up for success socially. That other parents, teachers, other adults, respect and appreciate them, like having them around. And when we kind of normalize using words that some families will be a little alarmed by or bothered by, then we’re not maybe doing the best we can to set our child up to be successful in those homes or with those people. We used to have a neighbor, the children were maybe preteens, and there was a lot of yelling of swear words. We live in a quiet neighborhood, and it was off-putting. And these were actually very sweet, kind children, but there was this other impression that constantly came through that didn’t seem so sweet and kind, and was unpleasant. You know, even if we don’t mind those words, they’re not a big deal, to hear them shouted constantly is a lot.
I’ve also had a friend of one of my children that came over —again, a very sweet child— who would do this, and it just makes it so much harder to empathize with children like that. It does make it easy for us to want to see them in a negative light, and we can’t help but wonder, Oh gosh, now is my child going to be saying these things, picking up this language? But I just want to be clear: I’m not scolding anybody. I’m no one to judge. This is just something to be aware of, that maybe we could temper our language a little bit.
Then if our child does imitate our language, or they’re imitating the language of someone else that they heard— very common for them to do that, that’s part of the development of empathy and the way that they explore and learn about the power that certain words and behaviors have. So they’re right on track to be doing that. The best response we can give is, Wow, you feel strongly, or, Wow, you heard that word somewhere. But if we try to push back, get upset rather than curious. And we’re not always going to be able to do this. But curious is pretty much always the best attitude to have. Huh? Where’d you hear that? That’s a strong one. Uh-huh, that’s quite expressive. Those kinds of responses will give our child the answer that they need from us: Okay, they noticed, but it’s not a big deal. But if we try to say, Don’t do that! Never say that to me!, or we get alarmed because we hear our child saying that and maybe feel terrible because we said it and now they’re repeating it. All of those things will create more interest in those words that our child maybe needs to explore.
They really are just words in the end. But they’re words that do have a certain power and, ideally, we’re going to be people who don’t give it power when we hear it from our child. So if your child is saying these words to you that they heard somewhere, or even from you, try to just have a low-key Uh-huh, wow reaction. Not pretending it didn’t happen, because then our child might need to keep trying to get our attention around it. We give it a little bit of attention, but not emotional attention, just, Uh-huh, whew, yeah, that’s a word you might be careful about saying with certain audiences.
We can have that kind of response when we expect that it’s going to happen. Even if we never say swear words or negative words, our child will pick them up somewhere eventually and try them out, most likely. And again, that’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s actually a healthy sign. So we’ve got nothing to worry about there, right? And they won’t take hold if we don’t give them that magnetic energy that we can so easily give when we get taken aback or worried or angry ourselves.
Okay, now here’s the third way that words matter. The words we use, they can color our children’s feelings, and maybe even bring a sense of shame, around their bodies, their personal care, bodily functions. And that can interfere down the line with their self-image, their body-image, and even toilet learning. When we say things— and again, this is so natural to do and say, and parents have argued with me, Well, but it is. I need to say that it’s dirty, it’s stinky, it’s yuck, and make faces and wave our hands and do all that when we’re changing our child’s diaper. And it’s not that we don’t have a right, and maybe it feels really honest, but there are these repercussions.
Remember, children are so impressionable about everything, especially what we do and say. So I would always consider, Would I say this to an elderly person or a disabled person who needed personal care? And if the answer is no, then I wouldn’t say that to a far more impressionable human being, a child. I would consider giving them that same respect and politeness and kindness. Even when we’re with other people and we’re checking our child’s diaper. I would do that discreetly too, because these are human beings and they deserve their privacy as much as anybody. Even more so, actually, because they’re learning about themselves. They’re learning about respect, they’re learning about relationships, their value.
I actually received a note from a parent, I guess this is a sort of success story. She said:
Hi, I read your article a few months ago about using words like “dirty” to describe diapers. I started saying “fresh” instead. You need a fresh diaper, Let’s get you fresh, etc. Today, my 16-month-old came to me pointing at her diaper and said, “Have fresh.” I was so surprised. It was so beautifully dignified. Just wanted to share.
Dignified. That’s another good word for a respect that isn’t often given to children, let’s face it. And they deserve it, right? It elevates their humanity and personhood. It elevates our view of them, our relationship with them. So we can say fresh. We can say, This is wet. Let’s change you into something dry. Or, This is making kind of a mess. Let’s tidy this up. Imagine yourself with an older person who needed your care.
So just to connect this back again with my stance that I usually express about the words don’t matter as much as how we feel. Yes, there are a lot of words that maybe aren’t the first one advised by me and others, but are fine to say, and we don’t have to worry about them, if we’re feeling, I see you. I’m not intimidated by this. Ah, you’re doing that behavior, but these are impulses. I’m not blaming you for everything. Then we can even say things like, No. Of course, we don’t want to say, no, no, no, no, no to everything, because children will tune that out quite young. But we can say, That’s a no, No, my dear, or Ah, my answer’s going to be no this time. There are loving ways to say those kinds of things. And alternatively, we can say words that maybe seem more caring on the surface, like, Oh, let me help you stop this behavior, or Ah, you’re really upset, but we can say that out of annoyance. Let me help you stop this behavior. You’re upset.
So the way we feel is still far more important than the words, but there are a few instances where the words we use can make our job harder, and none of us wants a harder job. Please, please, please know that none of this is about judgment or scolding ourselves for doing natural things, automatic things a lot of the time. This is definitely not about being perfect in any way. Like everything I share, it’s about raising our awareness when we’re able to. Not worrying about it when we’re not, but striving to be a little more mindful.
And I have no more words to say about words except, thank you for listening and we can do this.
In case you haven’t heard, my No Bad Kids Master Course is live, and I can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Please go check it out and, if you decide to go for it, I would love your feedback. You can see what others have said here —> nobadkidscourse.com
And my books make great gifts! No Bad Kids:Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting are available on Amazon, in audio on Audible, and wherever eBooks are sold.