The messages we give our children
As a counselor, I am privy to the most private parts of people’s lives, especially their thoughts, hopes, and dreams. The insight into their thoughts has made me aware of the way that I parent my own children, as I have seen the effect that childhood has on adulthood. Oftentimes, when I’m sitting with a client describing their thought process, I ask, “Where did that thought come from? When did you first start hearing that message?” Usually, the phrases that have always been a part of them trace back to childhood, for better or for worse. The messages we repeat to our children, year after year, will stick with them. The way we speak about other people, year after year, will imprint on our children. As parents, we have the enormous privilege of shaping their future, but that privilege comes with a heavy responsibility to do our best. Hopefully, the messages we give our children will inspire them, encourage them, and uplift them. Hopefully, they learn from us how to speak about others in a kind, patient, and forgiving manner.
The messages our children hear
Think about the common phrases you say around the house. What are your default reactions?
“No honey, I’ll do that for you.”
“You always mess things up.”
“You kept trying, and you did it!”
“Use your head. I know you’re smart enough to solve the problem”
“I’m too busy. Figure it out yourself.”
“That’s why you don’t have any friends.”
Think about all the conversations you had with your children today. Give yourself a pat on the back for the positive messages you offered their little minds. If perhaps, more negative messages were implied, make a plan to overcome that tendency. For example, our third child is our “wild child.” She has had zest to her personality ever since the day she was born. When she was two years old, my husband and I realized that our default was to say things like “crazy Ruby” or “wild Ruby.” We decided to stop! We didn’t want her to take that message to heart, especially as a teenager. So, we simply changed the wording to “our sweet, sweet Ruby” to remind us to be patient and enjoy that part of her personality.
As you think about the messages you pass onto your children, do they imply positive themes of safety, security, emotional acceptance, and confidence? Or do they imply themes of annoyance, ineptitude, failure, or dissatisfaction? If those same words were spoken to you by a co-worker or boss, would you feel uplifted and encouraged? Would you feel resentful about their mean words? Kids are people too. Kids also need to hear positive words. If you struggle with positive phrasing, here is a great post about creating an emotionally safe home. Some phrases to add to your daily routine could include:
“I noticed that you worked really hard on that homework assignment. Way to persevere.”
“Thank you for following directions when I asked. That’s very helpful.”
“Keep trying, and if you need help, I’ll be right here.”
“I appreciate ________ about your personality. You are a great member of our family.”
Positive phrasing seeks to build up your children – not diminish them. Positive phrasing encourages a healthy self-image, a capable self-confidence, and self-trust. It also teaches kindness and respect for the unique traits of each family member. Along with positive words, positive touch can also greatly benefit kids. Give them hugs and high-fives when they are celebrating. Sit close to them or offer a hug when they need comfort or support. Kind words and kind touch show that you are present with them, feeling with them.
On the other hand, negative phrasing can wreak significant damage over time. What happens after years of hearing they are inept, incapable, or unimportant? These new adults may be quick to give up on a task, fearful of living independently, or reliant on clingy relationships that unhealthily meet their desire to feel loved. These adults may struggle to voice opinions at work, struggle to provide for a family, or carry so much self-doubt that they expect to fail at every task. Perhaps they don’t know how to understand their own emotions, since their feelings were rejected for so many years, and so anger and depression account for their entire emotional spectrum.
I don’t write about doom and gloom in order to “parent-shame” or scare anyone. My intent is to instill a sense of responsibility into today’s parents and to encourage them to give parenting their best effort. Think long-term and really try to raise a happy, healthy generation of children. The messages we give our children are important!
The messages our children pick up
Every now and then I feel the need to honk my horn while driving. My husband will never honk his horn, ever! But if someone cuts me off dangerously or pulls out in front of me dangerously, I’ll honk to let them know that I’m there. I don’t want to get hit, and I hope that by hearing my horn, they’ll drive safer for the next person. (I maybe honk my horn a handful of times a year.) But my children have watched me over the years, and whenever I do honk my horn they now ask, “Did that person make a bad choice? What did they do?” Having a counselor for a mother means we talk a lot about choices. . . read about another “choice” story here. On the other hand, when I make a mistake, I try to apologize. And yes, I apologize to my kids. Hopefully my children hear those apologies to other people! I want to set an example of being quick to say “thank you” and quick to say “I’m sorry.”
Obviously kids listen at home. So ponder for a moment on what your children hear you say about other people. Are you using words that you want them to repeat at school? Are you setting an example of patience with frustrating people? Do you vent a lot about people in front of the kids? Is your usual tone of voice calm or angry? ‘Cause they’re listening.
What do you hear your children say about other people – messages that might have been influenced by you? Do your children yell at each other? Do your kids pipe in and chastise your spouse (the same way you chastise your spouse?) If they are bothered by someone at school, do they scream about that person, or do they seek to understand that person? Our kids will learn to mimic our communication habits – for better or for worse. As parents, we have the responsibility to set a healthy example for them. Our children will listen to us solve problems, manage difficult family relationships, and cope with stressful days. Are they hearing messages of patience, forgiveness, and honesty? Are we setting a healthy example of emotional insight into our own (and others’) feelings? If you need more information, check out this helpful article about emotional management for parents.
Let’s Do Our Best
Parenting is full of exciting moments. The first laugh, first step, first day of school, first awards ceremony, first dance recital, first bike ride – not to mention the hugs, the kisses, the Mother’s Day cards, and the couch snuggles. Parenting can be very rewarding and fulfilling, and I highly recommend it! But beyond the fun is the responsibility, and parenting isn’t for slackers. We have been given an enormous task – raising the next generation. And I hope we do it well. As we try to become better people ourselves, we will raise great children. As we try to set a healthy example, our children will likely follow. I hope that we all try, in our own individual ways and means, to be great parents in the long run. Over time, our efforts to promote peace, tolerance, emotional stability, safety, and comfort will have a positive impact on our little ones. Let’s do our best!