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Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But... How Deep Do Words Go?

Positive speech makes a lasting impact on everyone who hears it...including the speaker. Once you become aware of how deeply your words impact your child, your church, and your community you begin to pay more attention to how you say what you say. Here are some ways to focus on how we speak. Especially to our children.

I'm just guessing here, but I think there is some memo that I missed in the last fifteen years or so. I say this because for several years I have been inundated in public spaces and places with words and phrases that are appalling. At the risk of sounding old fashioned I have to say that I find the acceptance of this in our society disturbing. Must free speech be used in this way? If speech is free, then it is priceless. It should be used well.

Airplanes, restaurants, cashier lines, overheard conversations on the street or in stores. Everywhere I go I hear profanity. Words that detract from the positive atmosphere that we might experience, and words that can easily be replaced with something more uplifting. Some of these words have violent undertones when you look into their origin. While many of our more common profanities come from Old English, there is one word that is particularly offensive that begins with the letter f. Its origin seems to be German, although some linguists say French, and the meaning is "to hit" or "to strike". I think that we can do better with our language. I hear a lot of things being described with this word. It makes me sad.

My discomfort came to a head one day in a grocery store parking lot. I saw a mini van with car seats in it displaying a decal that read "Good Moms Drop F Bombs". The dismay I felt was real. I mentioned this to some young mom friends and they assured me that there are tee shirts, magnets, and decals available expressing this sentiment available on many online shopping sites. So I checked. Oh yeah. There it was. Several web based shopping opportunities for these items. Clearly I have missed some sort of cultural shift.

When did public profanity become okay? Our words are the most potent tools we have. Used well and wisely they bring light and life to those we love. Used recklessly and without restraint they will tear down a family, a school, a church, a business, a friendship. Careless, negative words destroy. This is a foundational truth of humanity. Our words matter.

It is particularly true that the words of parents are profoundly influential on their children. Beyond parents, there are teachers, care providers, and adults in faith communities that need to be aware of this. Your words can affect your child and the children you influence for the rest of their lives. Think about that for a moment. An eighty year old person will remember the words spoken to them in childhood. And you don't have any idea which of your words will have that lasting impact. Be careful what you say.

Words go deep. Bone Deep. Soul Deep. Not just the words but the tone. Children are especially sensitive to how they are addressed. They know how vulnerable they are. They know that they struggle with doing things that are easy for adults to do. They know that many adults will snap and say hurtful things to a child for reasons that the child can't help. Children are worthy of our respect and patience. Children are people. They have value.

Be honest with yourself about how you speak to your children or your students. Take a few days and really listen to yourself. Use your imagination and hear yourself from your child's perspective. Reflect on what and how you speak to your child. Consider what you can do differently. Make a plan to use positive words and phrases.

Here are some highly reliable techniques for teaching and guiding children while being positive and respectful. Try them out. Remember that how you speak to others is how you show what is in your heart. ("for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart" Luke 6:45b NASB) We are known more by how we speak than any other way.

  1. Express your expectations as a positive statement. In other words, say what you want rather than what you don't want. For example: "Walk in the hall, please." instead of "No running!" or "Keep all four chair legs on the floor." instead of "Stop leaning back in your chair!" Describe the acceptable behavior in a positive, firm tone. Use a flat intonation instead of upspeak. Avoid using the question "okay?" after you say what you expect. This implies that the child has a choice. So make your statements clear, firm, and positive.

  2. Sarcasm is immature. I worked one semester with a teacher who declared that she used sarcasm in the classroom because it was the only tool she had. She left at the mid year break. Her communication style simply didn't work with children. Sarcasm is provocative and fans the flames of any disagreement. As the adult, your role is to deescalate. Sarcasm does the opposite. In addition, sarcasm is passive aggressive. It is thinly veiled hostility and arrogance. Be the grownup. Say what you mean clearly, firmly, positively.

  3. Children take your words literally. Young children (under age eight) have not yet developed the part of the brain that can decode many of our commonly used literary devices. Things like hyperbole, irony, symbolism, similes, and metaphors are lost on children. They take words at face value. State clearly what you want to say to a child. They honestly don't know what you are trying to say.

  4. What you say without words. Human behaviorists have been aware for decades that approximately 90% of human communication is non-verbal. We express ourselves with our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and more. Even how fast or slowly we speak says volumes about what we mean. Think about how Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies speaks. Each. Word. Enunciated. Slowly. And. With Long. Pauses. You know he has anger issues from the very first line he speaks. Don't be Professor Snape. Use an open, neutral countenance when you correct or redirect children. Have a pleasant facial expression and and open body language. Your entire body is communicating. If you are impatient or frustrated it will show. Work to remain neutral, calm, and positive in the midst of chaos.

When I was a child, many years ago, it was popular to say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." This is a lie now and always has been. Words will break our hearts. You know this is true. Careless words have done unknowable amounts of harm.

I am guessing that words have broken your heart at some point in your life. Now is the time that you want to a cycle breaker as you move forward with your own children or students. You want to be a healer of hearts rather than just another adult who deals impatiently with children. You want to be someone that they remember seventy years from now and, when they remember you, they smile and say, "I was loved by them."

Share your positive phrases and techniques for communicating in the comments!

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