Language is one of the most powerful and influential ways to shape your child. The words we use and how we say things have an enormous influence on the way our children develop, how they behave and most importantly how they feel about themselves.
Children will inherently do what they believe you expect them to do, as all they know about the world and how they fit in is from you. If you continually tell them they are clever, smart, funny, that they can do something, that you are proud of them – they believe this without a second thought. In the same way if a child is told they are stupid, no good, bad, naughty, trust you to do that, how can you be so silly – then they will also believe it to be true, and consequently behave accordingly. Not only does this make them feel those things, it also gradually wears away at their confidence and self-esteem – the two things which hold people back more than anything else in the world.
Children’s inherent need to be accepted by people around them, their amazing pace of development and their acceptance of things at face value means that they take everything in and are extremely suggestible. Young children do not yet have the little voice in their head that says, “what if, I must, I shouldn’t, If I do this, then this will happen etc.”, so they simply accept everything that goes on around them as they way things are – They have no other comparison.
There are two particular patterns of language which can have a major influence on your children. One is the “don’t do that, or xxx will happen” and the other is speaking about the behaviour of the child and not the identity of the child.
The first pattern which is so common and yet can so often have the opposite effect is the use of “Do not do xxx”, especially when followed by “or yyy will happen”. Children’s minds are extremely literal and take in words at face value. Our brains are not capable of “NOT” doing something; we have to actually do it in our mind before we can think ‘not’ to do it. Let me give you an example. If someone were to say “Do not think of a Pink Elephant” what happens – You have to think of one, so as not to. Or if I say “ the cat is not chasing the dog”. The same applies. So by telling a child “do not touch that”, “don’t fall down or “don’t spill your drink”, they must get an image of touching, falling or spilling first. This has then actually given them the idea or suggestion to do exactly what you are asking them not to do. By making your suggestion in a positive way, that is by telling them what you DO want you are far more likely to have the desired effect. Such as ‘keep you glass upright, get safely down, keep your fingers away from the door’. You are both telling them that you expect them to succeed and so you are giving them an image of succeeding rather than failing.
The second pattern has a more profound effect. So often parents tell their children off by attacking their identity – “you are a bad boy” “you are a naughty girl” “are you stupid or something?” The child takes this literally and feels that they, as a person are bad, naughty, stupid etc. when in fact it is certain behaviours that are inappropriate or wrong in a particular context (i.e. not socially acceptable). Again these feelings slowly wear down self-confidence and self esteem. Children of course need to know what is right and wrong in each circumstance such as running around a restaurant is not right but running around in the play ground is OK. It is therefore so important that you let your child know that the behaviour is inappropriate, so rather than “you really are naughty boy” say “running around in a restaurant is naughty”. Again this will make sure they know what is right and wrong without making them feel bad as a person.
So here is your challenge. For the next week, really think about the way you speak to your child. Listen to yourself. When you catch yourself giving them negative suggestions, think of a different way of saying it to get the result you want. As you do this more and more, you find that you actually start to see their actions and behaviour in a different way. You start to see them succeed rather that visualizing them failing. The more you see them succeed… the more you find that they do.
Babies and toddlers really are like sponges. They soak up everything that is going on around them. Their little brains are developing faster than at any other time in their lives. This is when patterns of speech and the way they think are created and set. What better gift can you give them than the power of positive thinking, self-confidence and the belief that they can achieve anything they set their heart to do. You may think that that is a bit over the top as we are only taking about babies. It is not. We are talking about creating a pattern and a way of thinking which will stay with them for the rest of their lives and the lives of their children.